Let’s wage war on moral police

WIDE ANGLE | Saibal Chatterjee

New Delhi, August 28, 2006

It’s getting more and more farcical by the day. Only, this is no harmless Bollywood comedy. It’s real life and this ridiculous rigmarole is about a society and a bureaucracy bent upon impinging insidiously and insistently on the individual’s freedom of choice in the sphere of entertainment.In a country where it takes an acclaimed independent documentary filmmaker more than a decade to wrest the fundamental right to have an award-winning film of his aired by the national broadcaster, Doordarshan, and where the simple right to information, which should ideally be a given in a democracy, is such a hotly contested issue, is it any surprise that the government desires so desperately to control what one billion people watch on their television sets?

The move to ban adult films on television not only reeks of a medieval mindset, it also threatens to dispossess those who value their freedom to decide what the nature of their prime-time entertainment should be. In a scenario in which the viewer is left with no options, Indian television will continue to languish in its welter of saas-bahu mediocrity.

An official clampdown on broadcasters is a bit like imposing prohibition. It doesn’t really stop what it is intended to; it only encourages people to find newer, clandestine and nefarious ways of outwitting the law.

How Doordarshan treats filmmakers like the intrepid Anand Patwardhan, who has a sturdy fan following around the world as much for the quality of his films as for the integrity of his vision, is certainly of a piece with the moral policing that the government wants to subjects all Indians to, but it also points towards a far larger malaise.
As long as a filmmaker sticks to seemingly harmless but crudely suggestive songs and scenes in escapist entertainers, Doordarshan has no problems. But the moment a filmmaker dares to address a real issue and articulate his concerns about societal and political anomalies, Mandi House mandarins see red.

The Supreme Court directive to Doordarshan to telecast within the next eight weeks an uncut version of Patwardhan’s Father, Son and Holy War, which explores the linkages between our warped concept of masculinity and communal violence, is certainly a victory that calls for celebration. But by no means does it mean that the war is over. Far from it.

The sarkari  babus invested with powers that are way, way beyond reasonable limits won’t give up so easily. If I, as a film lover and not just as an entertainment junkie, want to watch Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Me or Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love – unfortunately, there is no television channel in this country which has a taste for cinema of this pedigree – why would I need the government’s imprimatur to do so. They are great films, so what if they deal with themes that are provocative?

I live in a democracy and nobody, not even those who frame the laws of the land, have the right to come between me and the kind of cinema that I wish to patronise. If I love a Zalman King’s erotic cinematic excursions, so be it. A file-pushing bureaucrat or an ill-informed politician should have nothing to do with my likes and dislikes. That’s a closed space where my own sweet will should prevail provided, of course, that I do not prove to be a nuisance to those around me.

Indeed, some of the greatest films that the world has ever known are about with adult themes and dark imaginations and they may even have varying degrees of graphic sexual content. The worry isn’t that television cannot air Hollywood and Bollywood films that carry the A certificate – who is dying to watch Basic Instinctor Murder anyways?

What is of much greater concern is that the blanket ban on adult fare on TV permanently blocks the possibility, however remote it may seem to be at this juncture in India, of an Almodovar or a Tsai Ming-Liang or a Bernardo Bertolucci film being beamed in their pristine glory right into our drawing rooms sometime in the near future.

Mercifully, technology is on my side. We live in the information age, where a click of a laptop keyboard button can allow me unconditional access to any website in the world. Does the government really think that the act of barring the telecast of adult films on satellite channels can impact what a movie lover consumes in the confines of his home?

Surely, a man or a woman above the age of 18 can decide what’s good for him or her. If they can be entrusted with the power to elect or vote out governments, they can also be trusted to make informed entertainment choices for themselves and their families.

Our children love The King Lion all right. And so they should. But not everybody’s idea of a good film begins and ends with Disney. Let’s all grow up and take on the moral police.