Mersal: attack on freedom of speech

Mersal: attack on freedom of speech

The latest victim of a ridiculous but dangerous attack on the freedom of expression is actor Vijay, who stars in the Tamil film Mersal, against whom the Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP has launched a campaign. The complaint against the film itself is that it has made incorrect references to GST, Digital India and the condition of hospitals in India. The criticism is absurd because words spoken by characters in movies or plays or other works of fiction are not tested for truth as statements in a scientific dissertation. They should be judged within the framework of art and measured by standards of artistic freedom. Characters in films often say very wrong things, just as people in their real lives do for various reasons such as ignorance, misinformation, or even prejudice and malice. It is ridiculous to assert that every character should speak the truth and nothing but the truth in a movie or a novel.

It is also dangerous because such an assertion is an attack on freedom of speech and expression. Everyone in the country has the right to criticise government policies and actions, including GST and demonetisation. Such criticism is legitimate, and has been made by people who were affected by these government actions, opposition leaders, academics and others in public forums, media and elsewhere. It is the right of every citizen and the norm in a democracy to make such criticism, right or wrong. Actually, democracy grows stronger when it tolerates even wrong criticism, while rebutting it with logical argument. But the tolerance levels are sinking lower and lower in the country, especially in the ruling BJP and groups tied to it. Political parties, social groups and communities are increasingly demanding bans on books or movies or removal of certain portions from them on the ground that they have hurt their sensibilities. Physical attacks and threats are not uncommon. The attack on Perumal Murugan and the vandalism on the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati are only recent abominations.

There is also a despicable attempt to communalise the matter. A BJP leader’s statement said that the film was part of a “hate campaign against Modi” by a Christian, mentioning Vijay’s name as Joseph Vijay. The Tamil Nadu BJP’s attacks on the film and the demand for cuts have been supported by the party’s central leaders and ministers. What is increasingly clear is that criticism of the government, the ruling party or its leaders in any form will not be tolerated. When Mersal has been cleared for public viewing by the censor board, there should be no objection to it from any quarters. The film is a huge success and the Tamil film industry has done well to rally behind it and the actor.

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