I gag myself: Self-censoring Midnight's Children

Lakshmi Chaudhry

Sep,11 2012 15:15 57 IST

"The literary map of India is about to be redrawn," wrote Clark Blaise in his New York Times review praising Midnight's Children. Salman Rushdie had made literary history by penning a novel that heralded the arrival of a not just a new talent but a new India.

"As a Bombay book, which is to say, a big-city book, ''Midnight's Children'' is coarse, knowing, comfortable with Indian pop culture and, above all, aggressive. Salman Rushdie assumes that the differences between Colaba and Chembur are as important, and can be made as interesting, as the differences between Brooklyn and The Bronx," noted Blaise, "Much of the dialogue (the best parts) reads like the hip vulgarity - yaar! - of the Hindi film magazine. The desiccated syllables of TS Eliot, so strong an influence upon other Anglo-Indian writers, are gone. ''Midnight's Children'' sounds like a continent finding its voice."

Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie at the Toronto Film Festival premier. Reuters.

Midnight's Children in tone and attitude foreshadowed the rise of an India as yet unthinkable: brash, self-confident and comfortably self-referential. What it didn't predict is a nation that prefers the comfort of silence to the hazards of speech.

Thirty one years after its publication and twenty-plus years of liberalisation, its celluloid version will be screened in 40 countries around the world, but not in the nation whose 'voice' it represents. No Indian distributor is willing to buy the rights. Some insist it's a business decision to stay away from a niche movie that most Indians won't see --at a time when numerous small-budget movies, including documentaries, have found takers. It's absurd to pretend that a famous novel and its far more famous author are less of a draw than, say, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Others in the trade have been more honest. “The Rushdie issue is one of the reasons why people are scared of it. Risking business is one thing, but if the threat is bigger, then people think twice," Producer-distributor Sunil Bohra, told the Hindustan Times. The other "issue" may well be the uncharitable characterisation of Indira Gandhi, says film writer Shubhra Gupta: "[In India] we are very wary of any film that even is political, let alone politically sensitive. Any resemblance to a politician … could be a problem. In a robust democracy, all of this should be possible."

This is censorship of a different kind: preemptive and self-imposed. No one has officially objected to the content of Midnight's Children. There's been nary a peep from the government, politician or organisation. And yet the fear of such objections is sufficient to squelch its release in India. As literary critic Nilanjana Roy tweeted, "No need for a ban when you have DIY censorship."

Where direct exercise of force by the state -- as with the recent arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi -- garners all the attention, the more insidious and far too prevalent forms of repression are virtually ignored, or worse, treated as the norm. Despite its affection for controversy as a publicity tool, Bollywood filmmakers prefer to push the boundaries in sex and violence, but less so in politics. They are content to make movies like Aarakshan which will generate just a wee bit of a flutter without generating real heat. Gone are the days when our filmmakers would risk an Aandhi or Ardha Sathya, and face the financial and legal consequences. The most politically daring Indian movies today, including Midnight's Children, tend to be made by those living abroad.

The Indian media is another ardent proponent of speaking no evil -- at least, not the kind that may lead to self-harm. One reason is the far-too-close relationship between political parties and media outlets, as R Jagannathan pointed out elsewhere in his piece on "crony journalism". When a publication or TV channel leans disproportionately toward one side or another, the problem more often isn't of ideological bias but of financial interest.

But this is just the tip of the self-censorship iceberg. In the newsroom, the sins of omission are far more common than those of commission. One common technique is to create a higher burden of "proof" for  the unwelcome story. An environmental reporter for a highly respected daily newspaper once told me, "The problem isn't the stories that take on the government or politicians. I get more grief when there's a major corporate player involved. Then my editor will start to give me a hard time: 'Do we really want to say that? What proof do you really have?…' And before you know it, the story just dies."

In other cases, there is no pretense of journalistic process. When I wrote a scathing critique of a special edition published by national magazine X for the online edition of a national magazine Y, it was pulled within days, and scrubbed entirely off the web. The reason: The editor was worried that his publisher/owner may be upset since he was good friends with the publisher/owner of X.  With the emphasis on 'may be' and the fact that my piece was a standard piece of media criticism and did not contain any personal attacks on individuals.

To be clear, this kind of silliness isn't a routine occurrence, but it points to the slippery slope of self-censorship. Once it becomes the industry norm -- because of financial or political self-interest -- it becomes all that easier to gag ourselves for far more trivial reasons.

It's easier still when we live in a goonda raj where you can be sued, arrested,  harassed or beaten up for offending someone. And rest assured, someone will be offended. There are always excellent reasons why it's wiser to just shut up when making movies or writing news stories, displaying paintings or holding conferences.

Midnight's Children may indeed find a buyer "if the film becomes big internationally", as Bohra notes. But what remains unacknowledged is the high price of this timidity: all the movies that will never be made because of the clear message the distributors have now sent to others without the luxury of Rushdie's star power.

In India, we have all the visible trappings of free expression: strident and relentless criticism of the establishment, the neverending stings and scoops, the celluloid ubiquity of the venal politician. But all this shor-sharaba disguises an entrenched pusillanimity that chills the expression of dissent. In the new Indian democracy, we are ruled by the self-censorship mantra: Why make trouble when it's bad for business. Amen, say our film distributors.