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The gag culture

 | December 16, 2011

Experts argue smothering dissension can be dangerous, as such, blocking expressions can lead to explosive situations.


India is fast becoming notorious for its gag culture. Dissent and differences are being muzzled. Or, at least attempts are being made to push them off public eye.

Sometimes, such efforts are extra-constitutional. At other times, the government plays censor.

At the recent International Film Festival of India in Goa’s Panaji, right-wing radical groups did not want an 18-minute documentary by MF Husain, Through the Eyes of a Painter, to be shown.

The screening was postponed, but the Festival ultimately made a bold move to have it on.

The beautiful documentary, made with brilliant sensitivity, was to have been shown in the 2009 Festival, but the organisers cowed down to extremist threats. Husain was alive then, and sadly he seems to be persecuted even in his death.

Interestingly, Through the Eyes of a Painter has been produced by the Films Division (a wholly government organisation), and is a winner of Berlin’s Golden Bear.

Some years ago, Toronto-based Deepa Mehta had to pack up and leave Varanasi when some Hindu nationalist organisations told her that she could not shoot, since her work, Water, denigrated Indian culture.

Water tells the story of a young woman pushed into one of the homes in Varanasi where widows live a life of abject misery. Eating very little food, just to keep them alive, they are shunned by society and forgotten by their own relatives.

Such widows’ homes still exist in Varanasi, and have been written about extensively.

Yet, Mehta and her unit had to flee Varanasi, and actresses Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi had even tonsured their heads for playing widows.

A few years later, Mehta shot Water in Sri Lanka, and it was shown in India!

Another controversy has risen in the cinema world. The ongoing Chennai International Film Festival has not included Leena Manimekalai’s debut feature, Sengadal (The Dead Sea).

The director says that her work premiered at the recent Durban festival and travelled to Montreal, Tokyo, Goa, Mumbai and Kerala. But Chennai appears to be frightened of screening it.

Sengadal is a deeply disturbing look at the pain and pathos of fishermen and other refugees in India’s Dhanushkodi who have been hounded out and humiliated by both Indian and Sri Lankan authorities.

The Sri Lankan issue has always been sensitive in Tamil Nadu, and obviously the Chennai Festival has decided to play safe in the face of what it feels could be offensive to local politicians and others.

Who will the censors be?

If these are covert forms of censorship, Federal Minister for Communications and IT Kapil Sibal’s recent utterances about curbing the freedom of social networking sites, such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, are blatantly overt.

Sibal’s remarks, which came after virulent criticism and objectionable depiction of politicians on some of the sites, were greeted with anger and disbelief.

Although Sibal later retreated by explaining that he was referring to the hate propaganda seen on the sites, the popular rage and resentment continues.

On Wednesay, the government said categorically that there was no move to regulate the sites.

Although some of the content on the sites is pretty vile, the question is, should it be censored. And if yes, by whom?

China has 30,000 government officials monitoring social sites to ensure that nothing even remotely critical of Beijing and its ideology gets in. Can India afford to do that and still retain the tag of democracy?

Also, as experts argue smothering dissension can be dangerous. Blocking such expressions can lead to explosive situations.

If you are going to stop one from venting his anger through words, he or she may possibly turn physically violent.

Who knows the man who slapped Federal Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar in full public view may not have had access to forums like Facebook that allows you and me to rave and rant.

Perhaps, rather than censoring free speech on the sites, it may be practical and prudent to educate people on the values of restraint.

I suppose all of us have the ability to censor ourselves: we do not swear in the presence of children or elders or watch a sexually explicit celluloid work with a parent or daughter/son.

Similarly, most of us understand the meaning of appropriateness and social decorum. The rest probably need to be gently coaxed into understanding the importance of the terms.

Surely, censoring sites would merely push people to the brink and get them fiercely rebellious. Which may not be a good thing.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at[email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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