Friday, July 11, 2014


(This column by Anna M.M. Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline on July 5, 2014)


Introline: If freedom of expression must include the right to offend, it must also include the right to protest. But should it be at the cost of “self-banning” in films, art, academia?

She: Why didn’t you tell me you were in the Sinhala Army?... My two brothers were killed by the Army. My parents brought me here so that I wouldn’t get raped by someone like you…”

He: “I didn’t ask if your brothers were terrorists. I didn’t ask anything about you. I didn’t tell you anything about myself, because it doesn’t matter any more.”

She: “It matters to me. My brothers were not terrorists. They were innocent schoolboys.”

He: “I didn’t kill your brothers. I was doing a job. Then I quit.”

Was it this conversation between a married couple in Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage’s With You, Without You that irked unnamed groups in Tamil Nadu? We do not know. What we do know is that the critically acclaimed Sinhalese-Tamil film — a cutting critique of the impact of war on ordinary people — was withdrawn from theatres in Chennai this fortnight, after threatening calls from persons claiming to represent Tamil interests.

The protests were bizarre considering that With You, Without You leans almost entirely towards its female protagonist who is a Sri Lankan Tamil. A representative of the film’s Indian distributor, PVR Director’s Rare, confirms that the Chennai police refused to provide security to theatres screening it and advised them to withdraw it. A letter from co-producer Rahul Roy and others to Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has received no response as this column goes to press.

This, of course, is now a familiar scenario — the collusion between opponents of free speech, the police and politicians who side with them either actively or through calculated silence. The message from the establishment is clear: some subjects are best avoided. The result has been what Bollywood director Shoojit Sircar describes as increased “self-banning”. Last year, Sircar’s Madras Café starring John Abraham was not released in Tamil Nadu despite being cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification. Theatre owners were just too scared after Tamil nationalist groups claimed it demeaned the struggles of Sri Lankan Tamils.

On the contrary, Madras Café was a telling commentary on the futility of war. The “self-banning” didn’t start with its release though. It began at the writing stage. The film is a fictionalised account of India’s intelligence-gathering efforts and covert operations involving the LTTE in the years leading up to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Recent history is such a hot potato in this country though, that LTTE is called LTF in the film; and Rajiv’s character is not called Rajiv, he is addressed throughout as just “ex-PM”.

Stage two of the “self-banning” happened when Sircar showed his script around in 2006-07. Actors and producers were unwilling to touch it. “The first actor I approached for John Abraham’s role said the subject is too sensitive,” recalls the director who ultimately shelved the project till the end of the Lankan civil war in 2009.

Let’s be clear here: this is not a column against protests. If freedom of expression must include the right to offend, it must also include the right to protest. Liberals in India are so disgusted with the repeated calls for bans on artistic and academic works — often for mindless reasons — by political or social organisations with a history of violence, that anger has become a reflex reaction to all protest.

Protest, in fact, is invaluable because it generates debate. This column is a protest. Reviews skewering books and films are a protest against their quality or the positions they take. When reports emerged in 2005 that the Eye Bank Association of India and the All India Ophthalmic Society had filed PILs against the Urmila Matondkar-starrer Naina — the story of a woman who gets a corneal transplant and is possessed by the spirit of the donor — many of us laughed. I confess I did. Yet, reactions from the doctors drew attention to the fact that superstitions and misinformation are the reasons why many Indians don’t donate their organs, or accept transplants.

Our opposition then can’t be to protest, but to enemies of a diversity of opinions, and to implicit or explicit threats of violence. Do read that again please: implicit or explicit threats of violence. When Dinanath Batra of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti sends legal notices to publishing houses, he is within his rights to do so. Yet, two major publishers while capitulating to his demands in the past year, have done so publicly citing a fear of violence. Batra may not have made open threats to either of them, but the track record of organisations he is affiliated to and the open support he has from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are enough to get any ordinary citizen worried.

In the absence of protection from the State, most then feel compelled to give in. In a nation of raw nerves, there can be no greater threat to art, academia and a free press.

(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad) 

Photograph courtesy: PVR Director’s Rare

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