Freedom of speech seems to be a vague concept these days. At a time when everything we read and share (sometimes, uncritically) is up for close scrutiny, we find those in powerful positions sometimes using freedom of speech as an excuse to clamp down on any criticism, any dissent, indeed, anything that can pose a challenge to them. If this sounds paranoid, one only needs to look at the state of affairs the world over (what? did you think we were talking about just one country?) – civil liberties are being threatened in the name of national interest, and those that question the state of affairs are being shut down in increasingly insidious ways.
While such repression may be on the rise, it is, of course, nothing new. Saadat Hasan Manto, the legendary Indo-Pakistani writer, was all too familiar with it. He may be considered one of the greatest writers of South Asian history now, but during his time, Manto was tried for obscenity six times. In fact, he came under fire throughout his life for his explicit depictions of the decadent and oppressive society of his time. Unaffected by society’s opinion of him, he wrote honestly and scathingly about the reality faced by sex workers, as well as the sexual subjugation of women in general.
Nandita Das, In her timely new short film – “In Defence Of Freedom”, brings alive Manto and his revolutionary ideas back on screen. Delivering a classroom lecture, Nawazuddin Siddiqui nails the quiet power of Manto’s voice, the sharpness of his unrestrained barbs, as well the subtleties of his mannerisms with characteristic flair. The short is a powerful and necessary watch for our times and bodes well for Das and Siddiqui’s upcoming feature-length Manto biopic.