Saturday, March 25, 2006

"Shob census kore debo"

- Subroto Mukherjee to Amlanda's father, during the Emergency. ADG's "one and only contribution" to our censorship class.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Pamuk - A Footnote

Orhan Pamuk's story 'A Religious Conversation', published in Granta 85, is an excellent example of the way in which so-called 'liberal' censorship can backfire on account of adverse reactions from fundamentalists. In the story, a liberal professor is killed by a religious fanatic as he had supported the ban on headscarves imposed in France. The dialogue between these two people is what makes up the story, which makes use of a chillingly matter-of-fact manner to underline the irrationality of the fanatic's argument (or so it seems). What the story does, however, is to make the reader conscious of the problems that any form of censorship can take.
While the French government is bound by Article 1 of its Constitution which declares France a secular state (the word used is "laïcité"), the right to freedom of expression of one's religion is also valid. therefore, some kind of balance has to be found between these two.
'Balance', therefore, becomes the key word as far as censorship is concerned. Total freedom of expression, though an enviable concept, remains utopian as long as all sections of humanity are unable to articulate themselves. Excessive censorship does not need to be categorized afresh as an evil.

However, what can be censored, and who decides what can be censored? Where will this omnipotent Platonic figure come from who can decide for the so-called 'good' of society?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Good Censorship

It is generally agreed upon that censorship is one of the biggest impediments to the "progress", as it were, of mankind. It hinders the fundamental right to free expression, and is one of the most favourite weapons of tyrants and oppressive regimes throughout history, employed to subjugate, suppress and gag effectively all kinds of deviant behaviour, thought or speech. Sometimes though, in certain particular cases, censorship proves to have unexpectedly positive side-effects. P.G.Wodehouse points out, for example, that one of the best ways to ensure that a book is a best-seller is to publicly condemn or ban it. To cite a somewhat flippant example, the issue of The Quibbler in which Harry Potter's exclusive interview was published became a raging best-seller especially as it had been expressly banned by the head-mistress Dolores Umbridge. One perhaps wouldn't go so far as to say precisely the same about Joshy Joseph's documentary, A Day From A Hangman's Life, an otherwise insipid and unremarkable film that would normally not have created much of an impact at any level whatsoever. The film didn't really prove to be a huge money-spinner, but the controversy surrounding it after it was abruptly pulled out of Nandan on the Chief Minister's orders certainly seems to have given it a new lease of life almost, by focussing public interest on an unlikely subject. It certainly explains why there was a full house when it was being screened at the K..P.Basu Memorial Hall on 6th February. I was pretty disappointed with the film; for me, and I suspect, for several others as well, the real interest lay in knowing that it had provoked the authorities enough for them to clamp down on any further screenings of it in Nandan.

A Day From A Hangman's Life focusses on Nata Mallick, the hangman who ultimately carried out the task of overseeing the final moments of Dhananjoy Chatterjee's life. Chatterjee, as is well known, was sentenced to death on charges of raping and murdering Hetal Parekh, a schoolgirl. The film, predictably, starts off with showing a whole slew of newspaper clippings about the crime, the death sentence, the various appeals against it, the grisly details of and speculations about the execution in a country which was about to witness a hanging after several years, and last but by no means the least, about Nata himself. The hangman occupied a huge space in the collective public imagination, being portrayed in a variety of ways -- from being a god-fearing person simply going about his job, to being a bloodthirsty monster almost, eagerly anticipating Dhananjoy's death at his hands. Joshy Joseph's film is basically an extended interview with Nata, going through all the phases. In the beginning, he is welcomed by Nata himself into his home. Towards the end, however, the hangman gets increasingly resentful about the fact that Joseph tries to get more footage of him than he approves of. His chief grouse is that he's not making any money, although he is the 'hero' in this documentary. Throughout, the audience is shown several facets of Nata the showman, who shamelessly plays to the gallery, milking his fifteen moments of fame for all he is worth. It is a film also partially about relentless media intrusion. In no way, however, does this documentary deserve even a fraction of the huge publicity it has garnered, if we are to consider it in terms of cinematic excellence alone. Even the one semi-original touch in the docu-drama, the metaphor of the cat, is stretched thin by being over-used. A Day From A Hangman's Life, then, becomes a classic example of (state) censorship providing a huge boost to an otherwise tame and mediocre offering.

Speculation over Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's knee-jerk reaction on viewing the film's posters at Nandan provided a more fruitful way of discussing the whole issue of censorship connected with the film. Reports suggest that our Hon'ble CM did not even watch the film, but banned it outright. My friend and I derived much amusement from the thought that getting him to actually watch the film would probably result in the lifting of the ban on it. The notable thing in this case, of course, is that the official reason for the film being pulled out of Nandan was insufficient ticket sales, and not the CM's disapproval.

Those of us who had expected the discussion that followed the screening at K.P.Basu to throw up any interesting (or even relevant) issues dealing with the reasons and methods behind censorship were sadly disappointed. Taslima Nasreen, one of the three panelists, failed to turn up. Sujato Bhadro, the first speaker, made a few relevant points as he recounted his own experience in having his documentary on Dhananjoy not being granted a censor board certificate. However, his address was mostly filled with obvious statements about the very basic premise that such a phenomenon as censorship actually does exist and that governments are mostly responsible for it. As students of censorship, we had gone to the talk knowing this very well, so for us at least, the discussion had little or no value. Moreover, statements like, " The Government usually almost never tells the truth, but the opposition always does so." smacked of being excessively simplistic and laughable. Vidyarthi Chatterjee, who spoke next, did not even try to veer close to the issue of censorship. He bypassed the topic altogether and proceeded to read out a long, bland essay about Joseph's film, lambasting Nata in the process. All in all, the most lively and entertaining bit in the whole discussion came towards the end, when both the speakers were engaged in a verbal duel with a certain JUDEean member in the audience, not realising that she was essentially agreeing with the very obvious points they'd made but was also asking a different question of her own!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Coda from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.
But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women's characters and roles?

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I "do them over"?

Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.

Two weeks ago my mountain of mail delivered forth a pipsqueak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story "The Fog Horn" in a high school reader.
In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a "God-Light." Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in "the Presence."

The editors had deleted "God-Light" and "in the Presence."

Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count 'em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?

Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito--out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron's mouth twitch--gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer--lost!
Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepencilled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like--in the finale--Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant's attention--shot dead.

Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?
How did I react to all of the above?

By "firing" the whole lot.

By sending rejection slips to each and every one.

By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.

The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-Day Adventist, Women's Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.

"Shut the door, they're coming through the window, shut the window, they're coming through the door," are the words to an old song. They fit my life-style with newly arriving butcher/censors every month. Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn Del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished this summer with all the damns and hells back in place.

A final test for old Job II here: I sent a play, Leviathan 99, off to a university theatre a month ago. My play is based on the Moby Dick mythology, dedicated to Melville, and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Comet and destroy the destroyer. My drama premiers as an opera in Paris this autumn. But, for now, the university wrote back that they hardly dared do my play--it had no women in it! And the ERA ladies on campus would descend with ballbats if the drama department even tried!
Grinding my bicuspids into powder, I suggested that would mean, from now on, no more productions of Boys in the Band (no women), or The Women (no men). OR, counting heads, male and female, a good lot of Shakespeare that would never be seen again, especially if you count lines and find that all the good stuff went to the males!

I wrote back maybe they should do my play one week, and The Women the next. They probably thought I was joking, and I'm not sure that I wasn't.

For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons like not my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. If the Chicano intellectuals wish to re-cut my "Wonderful Ice Cream Suit" so it shapes "Zoot," may the belt unravel and the pants fall.

For, let's face it, digression in the soul of wit. Take philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton or Hamlet's father's ghost and what stays is dry bones. Laurence Sterne said it once: Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer--he steps forth like a bridegroom, bits them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.

In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.

All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It's my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset I've won or lost. At sunrise, I'm out again, giving it the old try.

And no one can help me. Not even you.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Orhan Pamuk

It appears that the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk's trial by his own goverment--for 'insulting Turkishness'-- has been dropped, at least for the time being. Here are two recent links about the lead-up and the aftermath of the trial that did not happen:

http://www.englishpen.org/writersinprison/bulletins/joansmithreportsonorhanpamukst/

http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/0,1518,396786,00.html

http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/spiegel/0,1518,380858,00.html