Like death and taxes, it has become a certainty: every passing week brings forth a reminder that freedom of speech and expression are wobbly concepts in our country. Recently, Bengaluru-based producer, entrepreneur and independent MLA Ashok Kheny announced a film based on the persona of Tipu Sultan, with > Tamil superstar Rajinikanth possibly in the lead. The mere mention of the project was enough, it seemed, to unsettle the BJP and its ideological allies. Some of its Tamil Nadu-based figures quickly denounced Tipu as an aggressor who had committed “atrocities against Hindus”. Then they brought in another angle, saying Tamils had suffered during Tipu’s rule, and so making a film about him “would be an insult to Tamils”. Even the actor’s reputation was not spared. Given that > Rajinikanth portrays himself as a spiritual person, they questioned the appropriateness of his acting in a movie about someone who robbed this country. Such reactions to a film that is just in the stage of a proposal is but further proof that sections of India’s political establishment have lost the ability to distinguish between artistic expression and historical accuracy. It would appear that they want to control the narrative of figures and events from the past to reflect a view that corresponds with their own, with scant regard for history or artistic freedoms.
After all, the issue is also about an artist’s fundamental right to re-examine a mythological or historical figure – through books or paintings or cinema. If the political parties involved believe in the democratic system, then they should debate the legacy of Tipu Sultan. Was he a courageous anti-colonial crusader, or just a religious imperialist who lusted for political power? What did he mean to Tamils, to Hindus? But that would mean allowing the possibility of another point of view emerging, in the manner democracy should function. The protagonist of the Hollywood film The American President says, “America isn’t easy… It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech?’ Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil… You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.” Or take the case of The Queen , which was an unflattering portrait of the British royal family in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. There was nary a protest from any quarter, or demands to ban the film, despite the story being about people who were still alive. In contrast, in India, even long-dead figures seem to be beyond the hands of artists. Apparently, they belong only to politicians.