One of India’s most respected film directors has bemoaned the attacks on free expression in his country, especially the targeting of artists who tackle sensitive issues like religion, politics and conflict.
Vishal Bhardwaj, the writer and director best known for his acclaimed Indian adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies, described the often violent protests against films and filmmakers as signs of a society that was intolerant, uncivilized and increasingly “regressive”.
Bhardwaj cited the recent protests against actor Aamir Khan’s blockbuster ‘PK’ – a satirical take on Hindu ‘Godmen’ – as an example of this regression.
Bhardwaj told the Times of India: “In today’s India, anybody can wake up and vandalise anything he/she wants, especially if it’s about God. I’m sure God Himself is quite amused. He must feel like telling these people, ‘Why are you feeling bad when I’m not feeling bad?’ God is not weak. He’s capable of defending Himself. So, let’s just shut up and leave that to him.”
Written and directed by Raj Kumar Hirani, ‘PK’ tells the story of an alien (Aamir Khan) stranded on earth, who embarks on a search for a missing transmitter that will help him return to the mother ship.
His mission leads to a number of perplexing encounters with religion and those who practice it.
The film’s portrayal of the role of Hindu ‘Middle Managers’ – Godmen who profess to ‘have God’s ear’ – has caused anger among Hindu activists who have accused the film’s Muslim star of being “anti-Hindu”, despite the fact that PK’s writer and director is a Hindu.
One senior politician from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party even went so far as to claim that the film had been backed by “Muslim terrorist elements” in Pakistan.
Protestors have held demonstrations at several cinemas whilst numerous theatres have been attacked or vandalized.
Bhardwaj said such incidents were “symptoms of a disease” and violence had no place in a democracy.
“I was in the US recently when ‘CitizenFour’, the documentary based on Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal, was successfully released without a single theatre being vandalised.
“The US could have easily banned that film. Yet, despite Snowden being perceived as an enemy of the state, they didn’t. You can argue that America is an evolved society, and that we are getting there. Still, why do people resort to violence?
“Perfect democracy is one in which you can have healthy disagreements. Right to protest — peaceful, if I may add — is a fundamental right of a democracy. But not violent protests. Violent protests are symptoms of a disease. The disease is somewhere else. If you are running a temperature and your body is hot, you don’t sit in the fridge or sleep on a slab of ice to cure it. You go to a doctor.
“The doctor then finds out what the problem is, locates the infection and treats you only after he has all the information. The real disease is that we don’t respect our democracy and we don’t respect our freedom of speech. And law enforcement agencies are not doing their job to protect films that have been cleared by the necessary authorities.”
The PK protests echo similar demonstrations against ‘Haider’, Bhardwaj’s Kashmir-set adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which was released in October.
The film received universal acclaim and Bhardwaj was widely praised for his unflinching portrayal of the conflict in Kashmir.
One leading academic described ‘Haider’ as the “first step” in a journey that will “strength democratic traditions” in India.
Others however, were not so fulsome, with scores of Social Media users slamming Bhardwaj for “sympathizing with terrorists” and “insulting the Indian Army”.
At the time, Bhardwaj said: “I’m also an Indian, I’m also a patriot, I also love my nation. So I won’t do anything which is anti-national. But what is anti-human, I will definitely comment on it.”
In his interview with the Times of India, Bhardwaj offered further clarification.
“With Haider, I was first accused of being anti-army. Next, I became anti-national.
“It was my duty to make a film on Kashmir. More than a duty, it was my job to reflect the reality, as I saw it. I didn’t take any sides. That’s the rule of a filmmaker. With Haider, I was an objective observer. I was trying to discover the human tragedy in that conflict – how a common man got sucked into that and the consequences. In fact, many from the army came out in support of Haider.”
Bhardwaj added that he had had to pay a high price for taking on a difficult subject.
“People called Haider a brave film but you know what price I had to pay? Because of the threats, I had to move around with a personal security guard. No matter where I was – whether in the car or playing tennis – the guard would guard me all the time, impinging on my personal space.
“Forget about freedom of expression, my own body’s freedom was at stake.”
During a visit to London earlier this year, Bhardwaj had hinted that he was considering making a film about Irom Sharmila, the Manipuri rights activist who has been on a 14-year, continuous hunger strike in protest against India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a draconian law that grants the military near-Carte Blanche in so-called “disturbed areas” such as Manipur and Kashmir.
At the time, Bhardwaj suggested that India is, arguably, the only country in South Asia where not only could a campaigner like Sharmila mount such a high-profile protest but where artists were relatively free to take on such an issue.
However, he warned that those freedoms were being threatened by intolerance and violence against artists.
“A film like Haider could have only been made in a country like India. Nowhere in South Asia will you be allowed to make such a politically-charged film. (But) if we don’t put a stop to this (intolerance), we are in danger of becoming China or Pakistan”, he said.
“Banning films is not the answer. Take the smoking disclaimer issue, for instance. Putting a disclaimer every time somebody smokes on screen is not the answer. If M F Husain had painted a man with a cigar, would you have asked him to put the disclaimer, ‘Cigarette smoking is injurious to health’ on the painting?
“I see this as a larger problem. It’s an organised way of telling artists, ‘Don’t do this,’ or, ‘We’ll teach you a lesson.’ You scare them so much that next time, they will think hundred times before making a film that might offend you.”
Bhardwaj appealed to the government to protect freedom of expression, in particular artistic freedom.
“I hope we are taken seriously. It’s the duty of law enforcement agencies and government to protect us. Artists and their voices need to be protected.
“A nation’s history is written by artists. We know of India through Khajuraho and Konark, through our paintings, writings and sculptures.”