Whether the iconic library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt was burned down deliberately or accidentally, its destruction remains symbolic of the willful annihilation of human thought itself. In the 21st century India, we destroy the thoughts of writers and filmmakers by banning their books and films.
The recent condemnation of the Tamil film "Mersal" by political parties is not just ridiculous, it is totally insane. If they thought it "insulted" certain policies of the central government when the protagonist in the film criticizes the newly introduced taxation system in the country, they forget that he was merely articulating the same dissent that any opposition member would do in Parliament. In a film, it is artistic dissent as opposed to the other political disagreement. To demand that the scenes expressing dissent be deleted from the film would be like throttling opposition members who disagree with the ruling party. The political parties in Tamil Nadu need to re-learn the meaning of democracy.
This is not the first time that films have been censored or sought to be censored by governments and their henchmen for their critical portrayal of political programmes. Strange that the very same politicians who condemn such films are drawn from the film world. Celluloid heroes turning into astute politicians â€“ or even running governments â€“ is commonplace in this country.
Tamil Nadu, especially, is a land where film heroes and heroines don mantles of power as easily as they stepped into their film roles. One would, therefore, expect greater empathy from them for such artistic creations as a film or a book. But, what is more, disturbing in this case is the dissent voiced by doctors and medical associations.
Several medical associations, including the Tamil Nadu Government Doctors' Association, have condemned the film for its portrayal of doctors working in state hospitals. It is sad to learn that even the Indian Medical Association (IMA) has objected to the film on the grounds that it offended their members, and went to the extent of scuttling its profits.
Highly educated medical professionals joining hands with politicians to indulge in this kind of absurd activity is deplorable. The IMA would do better to improve its own image by restoring credibility to medical education in this country.
One can only lament with Perumal Murugan, the Tamil scholar/writer whose book "Madhorubhagan" was banned last year in a similar scenario. "When its copies were burnt, I wondered if there was any point in writing for such a society," he sadly commented. It was a statement of anguish.
That was one more instance of prejudice and narrow-mindedness in a state known for its cultural richness. "Madhorubhagan," which described the complexities and emotional fall-out of an ancient Hindu ritual, attracted little attention when it first appeared in Tamil. But its English translation produced an unnecessary and unprecedented reaction by certain caste groups, obviously engineered by political outfits in the state.
Murugan was forced to apologise for his creative work. Tamil Nadu failed to recognise one of its finest writers. Fortunately for art and literature, the creative spirit always finds a way out to assert itself. Perumal Murugan's rich poetry, which he composed after his novel was banned, has found its way to music platforms where his verses are sung to mesmerised audiences.
But, it will be a sad loss to the country if this spirit of intolerance is allowed to grow. Bigotry and fanaticism are age-old phenomena in all countries and all cultures. Was not Mozart cruelly deprived of his living because he composed an opera based on a banned French play?
Was not Voltaire pilloried and DH Lawrence condemned simply because they were far ahead of their times? It is easier to burn a book than to understand it. India, too, has a notorious history of condemning the written word. Way back in the 12th century, the saint-poet Jayadeva was castigated for composing the exquisite "Ashtapadis" just because they described the esoteric love between Radha and Krishna.
Nine centuries later, we have still not changed our attitudes or overcome our prejudices. A writer or filmmaker cannot explore religious, cultural or social themes without stirring extreme reactions. The reactions are mostly from those who have neither read the book nor seen the film. When politicians react, it is clearly political expediency.
It would be a sad state of affairs if this climate of intolerance is allowed to grow in a country known for its many-sided cultural traditions. India's artists, musicians, actors, filmmakers and writers make up a rich mosaic of priceless talent. They form the colourful tapestry of this country, not the politicians who control it. The latter can only burn their books, ban their films or destroy their careers. But, they can never really kill their spirit. Creativity is unyielding.