The land of the unfree

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.

Copyright ©2013 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

16 thoughts on “The land of the unfree

  1. Glad you posted this. I was wondering when you would weigh in on this? Not that you are bound to or have to…you could steer clear from this and it would be okay, at least to me. You can opine privately your thoughts an that would be fine too. But there’s a sense of moral outrage on both sides that makes us compelled to comment on it. Of course, you know where I stand but I’m sure the other side has things to say as we’ll. as you say, it’s not permanent, just a temporary tiff. Of course, we will continue to have these tiffs in the future too. But the increase in intolerance seems more permanent, unfortunately !

    BTW, The American President is on of my fav films…superb portrayal by MD. That scene is of course the high point of the film.


  2. Shankar: Actually, I wasn’t going to weigh in, because — as you say — we all know where we stand, and there’s just been so much written on this already. But then they were making a special full-pager on this issue for Sunday (today) and they asked me, and I had to. And I tried to make it as non-newsy as possible.


  3. Everybody I speak to seems to be on the same side of the aisle. So I would appreciate it if somebody from across the aisle wrote about this just so that I can try and understand thier perspective. I say this, because this act of taking offence has become so common that I believe there must be folks who endorse it. So I request those who endorse the ban on the movie to speak up and help the rest of us understand your position. Otherwise, we are just left feeling clueless.


  4. Great writing Rangan. I see writers like you along with certain actors, directors and general creators changing what the future holds for us. All of them constantly challenge the now and push the envelope for better things to come. It is however a slow and arduous process and one day, I hope we will be all fighting for better things than free speech.

    BTW, really love that speech from the ‘American President’!! Not to mention, Annette Bening looks amazing and fabulous in the movie…..


  5. Nicely written, Baradwaj, and great quote from “The American President”. Art and artists (and I include writers in this) need to be left alone. The number of times I hear my family warning me to not write about this or that just in case I cannot enter or exit the airport at Chennai. I always thought free speech was a given in India but in the last several days—especially after being part of the JLF where I also attended a panel titled “The Writer and the State”—I’ve begun feeling that free speech really isn’t a given anywhere in the world. I suppose the US can claim it to some extent. I think of free speech as a gift, a little Jack-in-the-Box of sorts. Use it, that is, open it, and be ready for a fist, a bomb, a snake bite, a spray of spittle, a water balloon.


  6. Made a Bangalore road trip past week to catch Vishwaroopam. Totally worth it. A bit dragging in the first half. Screenplay could have been a little more tight. But a MUST WATCH.


  7. There’s only one solution to this. We must devalue our own lives. Then we won’t feel owed and then, we won’t have anything to complain about. We’ll accept the stark reality of things. The only problem is, the human mind won’t permit us to do that.


  8. Bravo! Noone else seems to have pointed out the homeostasis that we so crave that forces us to have knee jerk reactions to bitter truths. But, why do we attack he Artist? Not the problem itself.

    Funny you should mention US as having thicker skin cos that is one country where neighbors are known to sue each other over the silliest of reasons. But, the Artist as such has largely been out of the reach of the ones who are easily offended.
    And, protected. While here he is some sort of a soft target to go after. With government endorsement, of course.


  9. ” Everything has the potential to offend someone, and therefore our films are about nothing”

    That exactly what I was thinking when i saw the movie. I saw the hindi version of the movie, and all the objections and protests seem all the more silly & malicious to me now. On the other hand, I felt strangely relieved & happy to see the theatre booked out completely (saturday night, in Pune). But as i came out of the screening, I wasn’t thinking about how good or bad the movie was, but that my 300 bucks would some how be part of a Fuck You to the over sensitive offendees..


  10. Rangan, would you mind emailing me the links to the YouTube videos? I have been following this controversy since it began, and think it’s a shame that we are so quick to take offence. I like what Sharmila Tagore had to say when she was head of the Censor Board. Taken to task by the media for releasing a film without any cuts (it was given a U/A certificate), she said that she believed the time for ‘cuts’ and censorship had gone; she would prefer the Ratings system, because she believed that everyone had the right to make their own decisions whether to watch a film. But, she said, she still stood by the Censor Board’s decision to release that film, because someone, somewhere, was always getting offended by something, and if they gave in once, then it would set a precedent for someone else to be offended by something else. Where would it stop?


  11. In these situations one often wonders what the undercurrents are or what political arm twisting is in pay. But if its taking offense then banning the movie might not be the right answer. Are they saying that people who watch the movie will go out & resort to violence? Ad by banning it we are condoning such violence which has been temp put off? I can’t seem to take sides cos I understand how misused of prayer calls and slogans might hurt sentiments but why watch it in the first place?


  12. Kalpana Mohan: That was a lovely comment.

    Anu Warrier: But if I linked to those videos, you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about, no? ;-)


  13. Rangan, ouch! I know who you are talking about; it’s because I couldn’t find said videos on YT that I asked if you would email me the links. Didn’t know it was verboten. :) Apologies.


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