The issue of censorship has, in our intellectual context today, taken on very controversial colours. Last year, the Joshy Joseph film One Day from a Hangman’s Life, about, obviously, one day in the life of the much-maligned Nata Mullick (chosen executioner for Dhananjoy Chatterjee, the man accused of the rape and homicide of a teenaged girl), was banned from being screened at Nandan, allegedly because it was attracting too few viewers. (When, one feels tempted to ask, does Nandan attract too many?). At a recent discussion – held immediately after a screening of the above film – on censorship, therefore, one expected fireworks and the odd bolt of greased lightning. One, sadly, was disappointed.
The film itself, though sometimes claustrophobic and always interestingly shot, is flaccid and frequently overcrowded with metaphoric intention. The speakers, ostensibly talking of censorship in modern society, more often than not veered away into impassioned rhetoric. They were both highly subjective, given to rants on issues pertaining to the validity (or not) of the death penalty, the corruption of the bureaucracy, and the selfishness of modern man; practically everything, it appeared, other than the bone of contention, ie, censorship.
The discussion seemed to freewheel into that disease of numerous contemporary reviewers – synopsizing and overemphasis on content – so much as to even incorporate highly inventive theorising on what “might have been”. The point about censorship was completely lost amid the declamatory waves of lyricism and intensely one-sided opinions. The first speaker even suggested that the film had not shown what should have been shown. In an atmosphere that had as its dominant tone the right to freedom of expression, this struck a slightly ironic chord.
Interestingly, what eventually emerged were forceful meditations on the merits of Costa-Gavras’s Missing (supposedly banned in Latin America), Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking (after all, it is based on a book by one of the leading American advocates for the abolition of the death penalty), and Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning. The opinion of the speakers seemed to be commendable and uncomplicated – censorship is reprehensible, banning more so. This unipolar discussion left no room for more delicate issues, such as the censorship of “hate speech”. According to Erwin Chemerinsky (“The Court's Recent, Controversial Cross-Burning Ruling, And Why It Was Correct”) “some argue that hate speech perpetuates discrimination and wounds those who long have been victims. Others argue that it is wrong for the government to deem any viewpoint, however vile, outside the bounds of the First Amendment. On April 7, 2003, in the case of Virginia v. Black, the Supreme Court held that cross-burning [by the Ku Klux Klan] with intent to intimidate is not protected by the First Amendment.” Although the First Amendment does not outlaw the expression of fiercely racist views, it understands that such views hardly ever remain merely verbal. So, the bench on the above case put forth three principles: 1. Some cross-burning is free speech, 2. Cross-burning proven to be threatening can be made illegal, and 3. Intent to intimidate must be proven, not inferred from the fact.
The tightrope that the censorship debate walks is complicated by such instances of revolting hate, one such instance being perhaps the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915 (the first was destroyed in the 1870s), possibly inspired by the newfound power of the mass-media, via the film Birth of a Nation and inflammatory and anti-Semitic newspaper accounts surrounding the trial and lynching of accused murderer Leo Frank. It is no small wonder then, that these contentious issues did not even find mention in what ultimately proved to be an abstract, platitudinal, non-discussion on censorship.
UG3, Roll No.201
“Literature and Censorship”