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No Absolute Freedom

The right to expression also involves the right to take a stand against the view propounded

No Absolute Freedom

It was the Uttar Pradesh government’s duty to strike a balance between two conflicting advocacies regarding the controversy over the shooting of the film Water in Varanasi, which were poised to interfere in the interests of the people it represents. One is the freedom of expression, quoted by the producers of Water. The other is the freedom of opposition to this expression, which was perceived as hurtful to the pride and sentiments of the people of Varanasi.

A similar situation had arisen in the past. (Shooting for the film) City of Joy was one such example wherein the residents of Calcutta had their own views about it. The film was perceived to hurt their self-pride and sentiments and Calcuttans protested. In such cases it is the duty of the State to intervene and help in resolving the conflict. That is what the West Bengal government did at the time, though one may differ with the kind of agreement it struck with the producers of City of Joy (a portion of the profit from the film was to be given to a trust - which included cpi(m) sympathisers, of course - set up to use the money for the betterment of Calcutta’s poor). But at least the government expressed itself and showed sensitivity towards the conflicting approaches. It stood up in favour of the people’s interest, as perceived by Calcutta denizens.

It would have been insensitive on the part of the Uttar Pradesh government not to have intervened in the matter and looked at it only from a law and order point of view. In fact in doing so, the state government could actually have ended up precipitating a further deterioration in the law and order situation. The Union information and broadcasting ministry was functioning within its own right to clear the script but the script alone was not the issue at the ground level. The choice of the name of the film, Varanasi in general and the site of the vidhwa ashram near the spot Sant Tulsidas is closely associated with, also hurt the sentiments of the people there. At the ground level it became a people’s issue which should not be trivialised.

Naturally, no sensible person would be a supporter of the exploitation and plight of widows, whether in the past, present or future. And certainly it is in the arena of social reform that this should be fought, which is why society has bestowed immense respect on reformers like Rammohun Roy, Phule, Narayana Guru and the like. Even the contribution of film directors like Satyajit Ray, and films like Rudaali, have earned respect not only for their art but also their motivation and its impact upon viewers. But comparing the credentials of Deepa Mehta with those of Ray is an insult to the great man.

The objection is not to social ills per se being highlighted in any art form but the motivation as well as the method by which this is done. I am not denying that social ills and exploitation do exist. And I agree that social reform is not the arena of the film-maker. But the marketing of social evils, which would in turn lower the image of Indian society as such and hurt the sentiments of the people of Varanasi, was unacceptable. Especially as Varanasi is where many social reforms and social service activities have also been undertaken by the people - who are now protesting - themselves.

Depicting the educated elite of Varanasi as exploiters of hapless widows would be unfair and uncharitable, although I am sure the story would set the screen on fire. Similarly, depicting a love affair between a Brahmin widow and a low-caste man may be perfect for a film story but it also casts aspersions on the sensitivity of the people in general who, contrary to what some may like to believe, have always been amenable to social reform. Pioneers in the field of social reform have always faced opprobrium but that is true of any society. To pick up aberrations and superimpose them on an entire society - which a film does - does prey on the minds of the people, makes them angry and leads them to protest.

Therefore, freedom of expression in art is never absolute. And negativism should be depicted with a corresponding sense of responsibility to the people, when it is put forth before the people. For example, art for art’s sake can be considered valid in the case of M.F. Husain’s paintings of Hindu goddesses as long as they are meant for himself or his friends, not for public display. When exhibited before the people, these paintings drew protests because the depictions hurt the religious sentiments of the people. Social and national interest will account for the finality in these cases. And it is worth remembering that it is only in exceptional situations that Indian society has taken to protest.

Take a more political example. In 1989-90, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the then Uttar Pradesh chief minister, was insensitive to the people’s sentiment regarding the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. In his arrogance, he made a provocative statement (Ek parinda bhi par nahi mar payega Babri Masjid pe) which not only led to a deterioration of the situation but bloodshed on October 30, 1990, at Ayodhya and a political upheaval too. So, the State in a democratic polity should be sensitive to the feelings and aspirations of the people and should not become a victim of its own dogma. Instead, it should sincerely try for some kind of dialogue, rapprochement and solution. Deepa Mehta’s track record and credentials were such and the approach so arrogant that she not only ignored the sentiments of the people but chose to hurt them further. This further complicated the situation and has made her into a hot potato which nobody wants to handle.

(As told to Ishan Joshi.)

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