Tuesday, October 06, 2009

What they wouldn't let them say

Last year, I'd watched a performance of Sakharam Binder, in Hindi. I think this was a little after the play's author Vijay Tendulkar died.

Until then, I had only heard about the dramatic strength of Tendulkar's work. I had read his texts, of course, and understood the political force, the moral arguments, the social dilemmas that serve as the sheath for his plays. But it was not until I saw a reasonably good production of Sakharam Binder on stage that I felt its true power.

What the play is about, I leave you to find out for yourselves. But I will admit that I was surprised at how relevant it seemed even now, how utterly modern, and how much I could identify with it, although the women in the play live out events that are utterly alien to me or my family.

Recently, I saw bits of it again, embedded within the structure of a new play titled S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship, and was struck once again by the sheer force of Tendulkar's text. In fact, I wish the actors who were performing the roles of the central characters from the older play would put up a production of the whole play again (In case anybody on that team is reading this, congratulations, those were very powerful performances). Many people in my generation have not been exposed to Tendulkar's theatre, at least on the stage. And our generation needs to watch and learn, not as writers or performes but as citizens.

Sex, Morality and Censorship is a self-explanatory kind of title. The play takes off from Tamasha, a form of theatre that was earthy, rustic, bawdy, and inevitably political, before it was 'rescued' and sanitized by urban artistes who brought Tamasha into the lives of respectable, middle-class and elite Maharashtrian society. And then the narrative moves on to the story of how Sakaharam Binder was staged, banned, rejected, protested against, taken to court, cleared, and finally performed once again.

This is not a real review, so I will not go into the details of how the play is structured and which elements work, and which ones don't. But I will say that the play caused several threads of thought to be extended in my head.

One of the most interesting facets of the legend of Sakharam Binder is the fact that it was banned. I have always found bans are interesting. They tell you a lot about the culture, the people, the true state of the moral fabric of a nation. This particular play was not banned because of its unbridled depiction of violence in the household. People had objections to the bits that had something to do with sex or bodies. There were protests against scenes that had an actress undo and then redo the drape of her saree, for instance; or scenes that suggest sex (although there was no actual sex or nudity on stage). The censor board had problems with filthy language (which is usually language that refers directly or indirectly to sex).

Sakharam Binder is full of abuse (verbal, sexual, physical, social, emotional). Watching it is not an entertaining experience. It is not a play I'd take a child to. Yet, it is a play that everyone over eighteen should watch. It is a slap in the face of hypocrisy. It is a mirror held up in our collective faces. It is art, and it represents all those cliches about art and the purpose it serves in human society.

A society that does not have the stomach for Sakharam Binder does not have the stomach for truth. And a state that refuses to allow people to see the truth is a repressive, anti-democracy state.

It is not surprising that in a society like this, the pile of stuff that gives offence should rise higher and higher. First, it was Tendulkar's plays. Then it was Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy. There was Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. There were two books on Shivaji that were banned. The Bhavsagar Granth is banned.

Every other week, somebody or the other decides to take offense to something or the other. The name of a profession. The name of a city. The name of a prophet. A song. A verse from a holy book, for god's sake!

There is no end to this, and in India, particularly, just because there is so much diversity and such vibrant, unwieldy power structure, censorship and the denial of the right to freedom of expression has reached ridiculous proportions. And by ridiculous, I do mean ridiculous. Except for very small groups of people who decide to take their chagrin into bloodshed terrain, everybody else just finds their chagrin amusing, an object of ridicule!

How did we let things get to be this way? Why are we not doing something about it? What are we afraid of? Where does the average Indian citizen draw the line as far as censorship goes? If the average citizen finds the truth about sexual relationships disgusting and wants to ban a play or film, should the government listen? What if the average citizen wants historical or religious plays or films banned? If the average citizen does not find hate speech particularly disturbing, should the government let racial hatred and war-mongering and all sorts of potentially dangerous speech go on, without any checks or controls? How average do you have to be to qualify as an average citizen?

These are important questions that need to be asked, and answers need to be demanded. Unfortunately, outside of a few newspaper and magazine editorials, nobody's asking. And certainly, nobody's answering.

That was one reason Sex, Morality and Censorship left me a little dissatisdied at the end. It is a play that comes at the right time. And it does touch upon the larger issue of censorship in India, how censor boards function, who sits on them and so on. But it fails to ask the question of how and why 'romantic' comedies that are full of sexual innuendo are so popular with the audiences? How is it that we can laugh at bedroom capers involving infidelity but cannot deal with a play where a character does not believe in the institution of marriage? Why?

The plays rears its head, then it sighs, puts its head down and goes into hibernate mode. I expected it to make connections for me - the connection between our moral values and our need for theatre. The connection between prevalent morality and current power structures. Because those connections exist. And understanding them, watching them unfold might help us reach some answers too. Perhaps, I expected this text to be as revelatory as the one it was discussing. I wanted it to tell me something I did not know yet, or did not yet have the courage to face up to.

Nevertheless, it is worth watching. Because part of the theatre experience is the sense of engagement with the groundswell of the play you've just seen. That is something films or books or the internet can never replicate - the sense of having been there, almost a part of what was going on. The sense of having stood by and watched. The sense of having had a small sliver of truth delivered into your hands, to do with it what you will.

P.S. - for those who are interested in censorship and book bans in general, this link ought to be interesting.


Anonymous said...

What if the average citizen wants historical or religious plays or films banned? If the average citizen does not find hate speech particularly disturbing, should the government let racial hatred and war-mongering and all sorts of potentially dangerous speech go on, without any checks or controls? How average do you have to be to qualify as an average citizen? Thought provoking questions...

sids said...

WHy not take our cue from Voltaire; "I may not agree with you but will till death defend your right to say it"

So why are we so afraid to hear the other persons point of view?

And if you don't like it, don't see it. Why ban it?

Pareshaan said...

Censorship and bans do not reflect the state of the moral fabric of a society, they are in fact indicative of a usurpation of a society's rights by a few people who fashion themselves as our moral guardians.
A modern society that hopes to foster equality cannot encourage censorship. People need to decide for themselves what they are okay with and what makes them uncomfortable. People need to understand how to deal with things that are strange, they need to be able to think why they are angry, repulsed, fearful, tolerant, unconcerned.
Censorship works on the principal that some one out there knows what's better for you than you could ever figure out for yourself. People need to realize that this is one of the most powerful forms of disenfranchisng a society.
Censorship makes decisions for a society, prevents exposure and limits intellectual exercise. It is not indicative of a society's moral stance, because a society that is okay with censorship concede's it's right to have a stance.

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