“Let a hundred flowers blossom!”
— Mao Zedong
“Where are the blossoms of yesteryear?”
— Bachchoo From Mamma Bola Biscuit Lao (ed. Bachchoo)
Stephen Hawking, one of our world’s best brains and a fruitful contemplator of the nature of reality and the universe, has died at the age of 76. He lived to see the filmic biography, which celebrated his life and his struggle against motor neurone disease, which left him paralysed in body without affecting the clarity and theoretical inventiveness of his brain. He contracted the “disease” at the age of 22 while he was engaged in research work in cosmology at Cambridge. In his cinematic biography, his doctors tell him that he has, at best, a couple of years to live. Hawking lived more than 50 years beyond that pessimistic prediction. Were the doctors who diagnosed the dangling fatality, the villains of piece? Should all those suffering from motor neurone disease or any other disease which is diagnosed as fatal in a short time now protest against the medical profession and demand an end to all such terminal diagnoses? I suspect, gentle reader, that you will think this a deviant and absurd question, but I introduce it because I was recently asked to speak on a panel about filmic biographies and the offence they might give.
The panel was convened as part of a programme of an association of business organisations of India called Ficci in their conference called “FRAMES”, in Mumbai. I suppose I was invited because someone originally chosen and better qualified had dropped out. Nevertheless, I was pleased to be asked and got thinking about it. As it turned out the session’s brief was narrower. It wasn’t as I had initially thought, a philosophical consideration of what should or shouldn’t go into a screen biography. It was the narrower consideration, occasioned by the political row about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmaavat, of whether film writers’, directors’ and producers’ freedom to write history would be eroded. Would they censor themselves out of fear? This is a central question, not simply for India but for very many parts of the world where expression, though theoretically “free”, finds itself (to paraphrase Marx-Karl, not Groucho) in chains. Chaining expression may be a more difficult feat than denying it or seeking to curtail it.
In the case of Padmaavat, which I only know from reading about it, I think the objections from Rajputs to a sex scene they erroneously speculated the film contained, were insincere. The objectors had a keen eye focused on building up a caste and religious following which could be electorally deployed in the future. From the panel’s platform, I recalled my experience with writing the film Bandit Queen which was then taken to an Indian court by persons seeking to ban it. In that case too, it turned out that the primary motive, for Phoolan Devi, the protagonist of the film, was not any moral objection to anything portrayed — but money. When it was suggested to her that she take some cash, drop the case and support the film, she did precisely, and almost instantly, that.
Her withdrawal of the case and support for the film disappointed the gang who had proposed the banning. It turned out that they, or one of them at least, were in touch with Robert Laffont, a French publisher who had commissioned a later biography of Phoolan Devi with a view to turning it into a Hollywood film (with Meryl Streep as Phoolan? And Johnny Depp as Vikram Mallah?). When Phoolan abandoned the case an editor from Laffont rang me up to ask if I could delay the release of our Bandit Queen by six years so that they could get their Hollywood film made and distributed. I told him to go some distance and have sex. Perhaps some of the people who objected to Padmaavat were offended by it. It hurt their feelings. Even so, should hurt feelings lead to bans or to court? Wouldn’t every lover in the world find him/herself incriminated?
The grave question is whether freedom of speech and expression includes the freedom to insult and offend. If a film is made about the Sikh martyrs, would the supporters of Aurangzeb be entitled to protest? British law takes the view that incitement to hatred is a criminal offence and can and will be prosecuted by the State, but hurting the feelings or offending the sentiments of one or more people is not subject to criminal stricture. The extreme case of this was the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. He was threatened with death after Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced an opinion that good Muslims should kill him. His books were burnt in British cities and very many people, Muslim and non-Muslim, professed themselves as the ones offended. There was no case to answer. On the contrary, Margaret Thatcher’s government, a prime target of abuse from Salman in the past, immediately took measures to protect his life and person. In India, an offence to a religion is taken as provocation and can be subject to banning books and to legal proceedings.
I don’t know of an Indian film that has attempted to satirise religious figures, prophets, gods or characters from mythology. In Britain, the film The Life of Brian made by the comedy team called Monty Python's Flying Circus, tells the biblical story of Jesus as satire bordering on slapstick farce: “Pontius Pilate speaks to his centurion with a lisp, turning ‘r’s into ‘w’s and ‘weleasing Wobert when the wrowd wequests his welease’ in place of ‘Brian’— the film's name for Jesus. In the ultimate scene Brian on the cross, flanked by two thieves, begins whistling a song which goes Always look on the bright side of life… Christians may have been to see the film, they may have laughed or they may have cried but the film wasn’t censored and neither the police nor angry Christian mobs stormed the theatres or threatened the actors and director. Christianity survived.