Wednesday 27 February 2008

History, freedom and bunkum

The release of Jodha-Akbar has sparked yet another media debate.


According to the opponents of the film, it gets its history all wrong.


According to the film's supporters, it's art with a historical backdrop really. So history doesn't really matter. Besides, there's the big matter of artistic freedom.


I'm afraid I don't get it.


If history doesn't matter, why use it as the backdrop? And if the movie isn't surrealistic, the relation between its backdrop and plot has got to be quite linear. Which means history does matter, doesn't it?


Of course the film-maker must dice and spice history. But can he say that 'history is for history books'? I suppose that's a bit thick.


Good science-fiction doesn't turn known science on its head. And there are fine historical novels that bring the history to life for the layman without disrespecting history. Must the film-maker turn a ten-course meal into chewing gum?


I hasten to add that in this case the director himself maintins his film is based on respectable sources. (Nobody expects every historian to agree on things which happened more than 300 years ago, especially in the confines of the royal harem.) The 'history-is-bunkum' attitude belongs to his overzealous fans.


Who also believe that 'artistic freedom' means 'anything goes'.


Let's step back and apply common sense here. In the end, artistic freedom, freedom of speech, or for that matter any other freedom, comes from society. Society allows it because it gets some benefit, monetary or otherwise, immediate or long-term, out of it.


We can say - speaking very broadly and kind of philosophically - that artistic freedom exists so that the artist may tell 'the truth'. It doesn't exist so that the truth may be twisted or tossed off.


(I do realise that what constitutes artistic freedom and its twisting may be an endless debate. May I submit that an endless debate need not be an useless one too?


Besides, for all I know, both art and law may have well-accepted notions of artistic truth.)


If that sounds hopelessly vague, maybe we should try something more familiar. The proponents of free market economy maintain that the free market system exists to maximise everyone's economic wellbeing. If it doesn't erase inequality, that's the price we pay for its efficiency. But it shouldn't and needn't lead to creative accounting, hoarding, inside trading, cartels, and the rest.


Everything may be fair in love and war, but business has rules. And rules have underlying reasons and... you get the drift.


The point I'm trying to make is that 'artistic freedom', like 'free market', is not a catch-all excuse.


Admittedly, the former is far more vaguely defined than the latter. Which is all the more reason that it should be invoked extremely carefully. Or you'd have Hindutva brigade producing films promoting sati, Ahmadinejad rewriting Holocaust history, and child porn, all under the all-embracing blanket of freedom.


Freedom is not half as all-embracing and one-dimensional as we'd like it to be. So let's remember the sorry end of the boy who cried “Wolf!” and think thrice before crying “Freedom!”


Ok, if 'artistic freedom' is only for the intellectual high table, what remains? Well why not try rule of the law? The film's been passed by the censor board. That's good enough reason for people to be able to see it. And the police to ensure that it can be shown.


(The government of Madhya Pradesh has suspended showing the film, fearing violence. This is dereliction.)


Of course, you can't have an interesting debate over rule of the law. Also, rule of the law sounds so, oh, rightist and unromantic. Nonetheless, I'd rather have them keep it simple than have ideals like 'artistic freedom' devalued. Who knows when we may need them.

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