By Devang Pathak:
This is not an easy country for creative freedom. I don’t need to state facts to make my case. We are indoctrinated in the art of what not to do from an early age rather than the freedom to explore the world on our own impulses. There are many cultural and religious restrictions imbibed in our culture which never openly advocate or support the arts, even if we are thorough patrons of it.
In stark contrast, America has evolved into an art-friendly society with minimal censorship. While there are fringe groups and interests which insist on protests and censorship, the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression. Which is why the Sony Pictures decision to not release The Interview was a headline grabber.
Sony Pictures Entertainment suffered a massive online hacking by a group called Guardians of Peace on November 24th. The hack of around 100 terabytes of data left personal confidential information in the hands of hackers who released it online along with yet unreleased movies. This was one of the worst cyber-attacks on a corporate entity in history and the reason was yet not disclosed.
The hacker group eventually starts posting on various sites with clues to their intention.The reason suspected for the hacking is the movie The Interview,which involves a plot to assassinate the Premier of North Korea -Kim Jong-un. A mail is sent to reporters by the hackers who say that the theaters screening the movie could face a “9/11 Style” terror attack. Many theater chains withdraw the release of the movie on Christmas Day which is followed by Sony’s decision to not release the movie. Subsequently, the movie is released online and in certain theaters which were ready to screen the movie. North Korean government is suspected of the hacking by the FBI.
There was a scathing criticism of Sony Pictures’ decision to withdraw the movie with the impression that they gave into terrorist threats. For an American with- ‘We do not negotiate with terrorists’ beliefs, the criticism is understandable. As an Indian with- ‘We will get beaten up for this’ beliefs, I find the decision by Sony Pictures completely reasonable. I am used to being told what not to watch or read by people with hockey sticks, stones and rods in their hands for decades.
Where do you want me to start? The book by Salman Rushdie which had him scouring halfway across the world to save his life? The paintings by M.F.Husain which led him, arguably India’s best known modern era painter, to spend his last years away from the city he loved so much? The scores of academic books which are banned after being burned by political groups in protest? The countless movies which cleared the Censor Board but were threatened with litigation and violence?
Let us just look at the latest protest on the movie – PK. It is claimed that the movie is insulting to the Hindu religion and there has been a demand for a ban on the movie or removal of certain scenes. The protests even turned violent in Ahmedabad. The result? PK just became the highest grossing Indian movie ever. Earlier in the year, Haider also faced immense protests for the portrayal of the Indian Army in the movie. Outcome? It is Vishal Bharadwaj’s highest grossing movie till date.
From the days of Fire and Girlfriend, we are definitely seeing better days where movies are not being banned and removed and in fact, the controversy is helping them do better business. But now imagine a scenario, much similar to what happened in the US. Imagine that instead of stones, a group of protesters use the illegal means of hacking or online threats to derail the release of something they do not agree with.
Indians are some of the most sensitive people in the world in terms of open-mindedness to the arts, a fact which can be proven by the number of frivolous litigations against movies and actors. Add to that the proven tactic of successfully derailing and destroying the means of delivering content to the world such as online hacking, threats, piracy. This makes for an unsavory and dangerous mix for fundamental rights of expression.
Freedom of speech and expression is the most basic and essential democratic right any human being deserves in the 21st century. It covers both – the right to create meaningful art and the right to peaceful protest. What we forget in our enthusiasm of protest and agitation is the business aspect of things. All mainstream art is eventually dependent on money and patronage- which more than often sides with the liberal and aesthetic sense of the human identity.
For example, The Interview as a stand-alone movie is a very bad comedy. It is one of the writer-director’s worst attempts and though it would have been a huge box-office draw initially, it would have failed to keep the momentum. The hype from the hacking scandal has ushered a wave of earnings and support which the content of the movie doesn’t deserve.Similarly, PK is one of Mr. Hirani’s weakest movies. While better than The Interview, it is questionable on whether it deserves to be the highest grossing Bollywood movie ever.
The greedy and business minded industry of mainstream movies understands the language of money. If both the mentioned movies were protested but not hyped, their success would have been far lower and a lesson in itself for the makers who would listen to their rational audience to deliver better content. Instead, they now serve as controversial political points between two hostile countries and as a political game of “tax-free” in another, all the while raking in millions.