The spectacle on TV and in print, over the last few days, of protesters calling for a ban on the film The Da Vinci Code harks back to the days of the Black List and the horrors of the Inquisition. It is demeaning to the spirit of a religion which has withstood centuries of questioning, doubt and creative exploration.
For religious organisations to call on a secular state to step in to assuage their sensitivities reflects the fact that freedom of expression is falling prey to populist sentiments. Indeed, there are already headlines about the state pandering to minorities. And yet, larger, more serious issues affecting minorities, religious or otherwise, are constantly swept aside.
The outcry against the film is counter-productive. The protesters are falling into the trap so carefully laid by its makers: excessive publicity to generate maximum profit. The book and the film are sad examples of the current tendency among publishers and media managers to sell products that are sensational, and with more than a touch of scandal and prurience, especially when the victims are objects of veneration and respect.
Truth is the first casualty of such propaganda. And by truth I mean two things: one, the expression of intellectual opinion without malice and without an eye on profit, two: a sincere endeavour to analyse a situation, a hero, or even a religion, rationally.
The Da Vinci Code, as book and film, is a tissue of specious arguments based on admitted forgeries, and has been unverified even on the basis of so-called rumour. It brings into its net great figures of history, divine and human. There should have been a disclaimer by the producers, Sony Pictures, right at the outset, that the film is a work of fiction, for the benefit of those offended—or confused—by its doctoring of history and theology. They should not have waited for the censor board to instruct them to carry a disclaimer, as it has now done.
Mature audiences in India will hopefully see the film for what it is—a shoddy work of fiction. As for Christians, while our religious sensibilities are hurt, our faith is not shaken. Negative scrutiny and disparagement of this kind only illumines faith—it does not dent it.
Intolerance, the commodification of culture and the politicisation of religion are issues we need to contend with. On that account, governments sometimes feel compelled to intervene and ban. But banning only leads to a vicious cycle of intolerance. Once unleashed, where does it stop? Who will protect us from these so-called protectors?
Great books and great films have been banned in the past and the critics of these bans have pointed out the deep humanism and spirituality of the banned works. The Last Temptation of Christ (Nikos Kazantzakis); The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene) and Pier Pasolini's classic film The Passion According to St Matthew explore the sacrifices and tribulations and the triumph of the human spirit. Their explorations of the human psyche do not conform to orthodoxy. The Da Vinci Code is, of course, in a different category—it is merely a potboiler. But even so, a ban is out of place, and I am glad that the film is not, finally, being banned.
The tendency to ban in the interest of communal harmony can lead to illiberal decisions. Restrictions, when needed, in the interest of public order should not involve censorship. It is time we learn to take a balanced view of these situations to preserve that sense of freedom of speech and expression which is so vital to the functioning of a democratic society. Also, banning a film or a book of dubious merit invests it with an authority that it does not have. Nor does it offer any protection to the so-called minority interests.
Let us remind ourselves of what Voltaire said: "Though I may disagree with you, I shall defend to death your right to say it. " Freedom of speech and expression implies that in democracies, public opinion is mature enough not to be swayed or influenced by dubious statements.
We need to also remember, in this context, the founding principles of our Republic and the faith of those who wrote the Constitution in the maturity of the Indian people. It was this faith that prompted Jawaharlal Nehru to overrule the ban proposed on Nabokov's Lolita. By no stretch of imagination can Dan Brown be equated with Nabokov. All the more reason, therefore, to allow the film to sink with the weight of its falsifications and its voyeurism into the obscurity it deserves.
(The writer is the author of the critically acclaimed Goa: A Daughter's Story, and a practising Roman Catholic.)