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Conservatives, right-wing groups increasingly becoming the moral police: Nandita Das

The actress-filmmaker believes that there have been attempts to silence creative voices in recent years.


Democracy is under threat in India with "artists, writers and rationalists" being attacked in some form or the other, says acclaimed actress and filmmaker Nandita Das, who feels conservatives and right-wing groups are increasingly becoming the country's moral police.

Be it the debate around growing intolerance in India or the agitation around the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Padmaavat or the issues around Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's S Durga or the occasional calls to put a temporary ban on Pakistani talent from working in the Hindi film industry — the conversation around the extent of creative freedom in India keeps coming back. And Das feels there have been attempts to silence creative voices.

"Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter'. These days whether it is media or individuals, people are being censored by self-proclaimed vigilante groups or are self-censoring themselves, out of fear," Das told IANS, a news agency, in an e-mail interview.

"Conservatives and right-wing groups are increasingly becoming the moral police. At the same time, official censoring bodies are becoming more bigoted and their rulings are getting more and more subjective and arbitrary," Das, who had faced protests over her socially moving and bold film Fire (1998), added.

The actress noted that "artists, writers, rationalists are all being attacked in some form or the other and are being silenced".

"A society can grow and develop only when it gives space for dissent and free thinking. And this shrinking space threatens democracy and human progress," she said.

Taking her forthcoming film Manto to draw comparisons with the current scenario, the director said, "Manto was tried for obscenity six times because he wrote about sex workers, giving them dignity that was rare and used the language of the street, deemed inappropriate. He said, 'If you can't bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times'."

After having helmed Firaaq in 2008, Das went behind the camera to trace the life of writer Saadat Hasan Manto. Nawazuddin Siddiqui will be seen bringing the character to life and film is expected to be released in India in September this year.

Manto, who died in 1955 at the age of 43, penned an impressive body of work touching various genres.

He churned out about 22 collections of stories, including a novel, essays, personal sketches and movie scripts. Out of his literary gems was a story on Mirza Ghalib, a poet who is often compared with the stature of Shakespeare. Manto's work also gained attention for weaving stories around the ordeal of Partition and sexuality.

Manto, co-produced by HP Studios, Filmstoc and Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, was the only Indian film in Un Certain Regard category at 71st Cannes Film Festival. It will also be screened at the ongoing Sydney Film Festival on 16 and 17 June.

The film provides a window into Manto's life during the tumultuous partitioning of British colonial India into two new nations — India and Pakistan.

Do you think Indians have moved on from there?

"Far from it. Partition remains a very important part of the subcontinent's narrative. It has been invoked for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes for political agendas, sometimes to understand the pain and trauma some still feel today. Close to 14 million people were displaced, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, women raped... all the heinous crimes that come with sectarian violence. It is bound to have a lasting impact. But I am not sure we have learnt all the lessons that we needed to learn," Das said.

The filmmaker doesn't agree with the calls to put a temporary ban on Pakistani talent working in the Hindi film industry. She asserts the role of art is to build bridges and not walls.

"When there is political tension, culture can become the means to bring people closer, lessen prejudice and trigger conversations. Whenever I have been to Pakistan, I find people in admiration of our democracy, diversity, art, culture and in particular, cinema. Good stories are local in their context but universal in their emotions. It is a pity that we in South Asia cannot travel and collaborate freely.

"If we want to be peaceful, we need to have peaceful co-existence with our neighbours," she added.

The actress, who garnered critical acclaim with films like Earth (1998) and Bawandar (2000), points out that there is a need to fight terrorism.

"Fight governments that encourage it instead of stopping it, but we also need to have the wisdom to separate the people from those governments. People are suffering there too. Art can, in fact, becomes the balm to our common wounds."