“I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death, your right to say it”, said the author Voltaire (Attributed to Voltaire by S.G. Tallentyre in “The Friends of Voltaire”, 1907).
India has the benefit of one of the most modern and liberal Constitutions which seeks to safeguard its rich and diverse heritage while also fostering the growth of a democratic culture.
One of the most cherished rights under our Constitution is to speak one’s mind and write what one thinks. No doubt, this is subject to reasonable restrictions, but then the ambit of what one can do is wide. The very heart of democracy is the freedom to think and act differently. Implicit therein is a freedom to react and respond to same situations differently and distinctly. As the Indian Supreme Court once pithily put it, “in a democracy, it is not necessary that everyone should sing the same song.”
While no one would cavil at the proposition that the freedom of speech and expression is a cherished constitutional value in theory, India cannot hope that its commitment to uphold this value will carry much meaning if it is not able to stay true to this commitment when the speech in question is offensive, unpalatable and disturbing.
Nowhere has this commitment been put to the test more than it has in the manner in which regulatory authorities deal with the phenomenon of the emergence of a new breed of actors and producers who are not afraid of expressing unconventional views and opinions.
Believing that their predecessors sold dreams and seldom dared to portray reality, the filmmakers of today want to tap into the transformative potential of the film to shape people’s opinions, break deeply entrenched stereotypes and start difficult conversations.
We cannot expect that they will present current and live issues and problems in the same manner as the generation which came before them. They want to chart a course of their own, uninfluenced by earlier works. A certain degree of freshness, a change of attitude and a different way of looking at the same medium by itself and without anything more should not result in bringing about disruptions or creating hurdles and obstacles in their way. To stop them abruptly and by extreme responses will not only discourage them but may kill creativity. If they are allowed to go ahead in their own way but with timely cautioning and warning, they may respond positively and take the same in proper spirit. However, to interfere with their work again and again, mindlessly will only invite extreme reactions. That would not be conducive to the growth of the medium. Eventually, it must march with the times and compete with the best of the works made locally and globally. That apart, the appeal of the social media coupled with the advent of television which operates on a multi channel basis 24X7 resulting in large scale production and distribution of teleserials, teledramas, telefilms presents an enormous challenge which is threatening the existence or efficacy of a celluloid film. A full length feature film needs to hold the audience to the seat for certain hours. Its story line, theme, script and the overall content should have that capacity and potency. Else, the audience interest will wane and vanish. Hence, filmmakers, producers, directors of today have changed their strategies.
The filmmakers of today are direct, forthright, attacking, aggressive and even brutal in their presentation. Just because they are not soft, subtle in their approach, censor board cannot be unduly strict and harsh. Holding up clearance certificates by censor board or suggesting cuts and excisions in virtually every alternate scene would be counter productive. Not for nothing did finance minister Arun Jaitley recentlystate that he was “not satisfied” with the existing system of film certification.
Therefore, in view of the above, the need to protect freedom of speech and expression of filmmakers/artists assumes added importance.
It is also high time the Government constituted an expert body to deal with situations arising from such conflicts of views, as opposed to following an ad hoc, unprincipled and reactionary approach. At the same time, it is imperative that such a body be manned by experts from the film industry and different spheres of society so as to ensure maximum objectivity and independence.
In such matters of art and culture, the issue cannot be left to the police authorities or the local administration alone, especially when there is a spurt in such conflicts. The State has to ensure proper police protection where such authors and artistes come under attack from a section of the society. Regular programmes need to be conducted for sensitizing officials over matters dealing with such conflicts of artistic and literary appreciation.
In conclusion, censorship authorities in India would do well to remember J.S. Mill’s admonition: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”