The land of the unfree

Posted on February 3, 2013


With every passing controversy, we’re learning to redefine our rights.

This is the story of two YouTube videos. The first one came up bare hours before I sat down to write this, and it featured an actor, a producer, a director announcing to a media gathering that he was now homeless in every sense. His new production, the one that had sucked up his life’s savings, still hadn’t made it to theatres, and without a release, his creditors would end up possessing his house. The one with the big black gate, next to that multi-cuisine restaurant. The address known to every auto-rickshaw driver in this city. That house would no longer be his. That’s as homeless as one can get. Except in this case, where the actor found himself dispossessed by his other home as well – his state, his nation. If you’re turned out of your home, you can take to the streets. What can you do if your country turns its back on you?

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Perhaps that’s overstating things a tad. Perhaps that seems a little too dramatic. But these events of these past days have taken that kind of tone –score the whole thing with a bank of violins and you’d have the kind of melodrama that’s playing now in the city’s theatres, the musical about the man who stole a loaf of bread and was hounded by the Establishment, based on a story that took place in France all those centuries ago, or inside Victor Hugo’s head. This actor, though, didn’t steal bread. In fact, he didn’t steal anything. You only steal what’s not yours, and freedom, we think, is ours. Sometimes we don’t even think it. It isn’t a conscious notion. We simply take for granted that we are free to do what we want to do, create what we want to create, as long as it doesn’t hurt our neighbours, those denizens of our other home, the larger home.

And now, we’re learning that we may have been wrong all along. We’re learning how to redefine “hurt,” that it can be triggered by anything from annoyance to dislike to intolerance. And we are learning to redefine “free.” Have you seen The American President? It’s as bleeding-heart-liberal as a Hollywood entertainment can get, but there’s a speech in it that defines what freedom is all about. Says the President: “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil… You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the ‘land of the free’.”

By that definition, we’re not free. None of us are. We’re only free as long as we do the simple things, the safe things. But the actor already knew this, which brings us to the second YouTube video, the one he made, in an apparent drunken fit, after a similar controversy clouded the release of an earlier film, one that needed to be renamed because its earlier name carried casteist connotations, or so we were told. (Thankfully, this newspaper has been allowed to retain its name.) In that scabrously funny video, which ultimately leaves us feeling terribly sad, the way we feel today, this actor made the point that it was futile to hew to notions of “local culture,” because its definition keeps changing every five years, like politicians. This is the video that tells us why Tamil films, today, play it so safe. Everything has the potential to offend someone, and therefore our films are about nothing.

This video also tells us that the arrival of the other video was just a matter of time. And through this man’s travails, over these years, those of us who write and paint and draw cartoons and make music and shape lyrics have begun to recognise that our rights, too, are like “local culture,” something today, something else tomorrow. The actor is right. Perhaps we don’t have the space for him – and people like him, who constantly question the status quo, sticking needles in our skin and shaking us from complacency, our belief that all is really well around us; people, in other words, who used to be celebrated as true artists — in this state anymore. Home is where someone feels safe. It’s the harbour against the storms of the world outside, and a home that’s not a harbour is not a home anymore.

It’s a few days later and, befitting a story about cinema, there’s a twist in the tale. The slimmest of olive branches has changed hands, the palest of white flags waved. That pinprick in the distance, that seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. But you know and I know that these truces are temporary. Sometime in the near future, people will make what they want to make again. People who want to be offended will be offended again. And people who pen laments like this one, about the death of democracy, will write them again. I refer, of course, to no one in particular, no place in particular, just as no names have been used in this article in order not to hurt the feelings of fans of specific actors and films, along with newspaper readers prone to lawsuits because their morning hasn’t been sweetened with articles of a cheerier nature. Those lines from The American President, however, I have no problem acknowledging. Hollywood has a thicker skin.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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