SC remarks on ‘Tandav’ strike against idea of independent republic of arts

When life seems to spin out of control, we tend to philosophise that our lives are mere roles in a script written by someone else. There is an odd comfort in this abdication of responsibility. Shakespeare came up with a more poetic expression: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, /That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, /And then is heard no more”.

Not anymore. The recent Supreme Court observations on the web series Tandav did not merely place limits on the freedom of the artist, but also indirectly deprived us of the comfort of this philosophical shrug, when it told actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub that he could not attribute the allegedly objectionable words of his character to the scriptwriter. The court observed that the actor had accepted the contract after reading the script, implying that it was his responsibility to ensure the script was politically correct. Here, the actor was the character in control of his fate, not a poor player who struts the stage mouthing other people’s lines.

It is true that the actor had the choice to refuse the role. But, if actors were to refuse roles on the basis of imagined hurts of a community, what would be the fate of a cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter, a scheming Lady Macbeth or the evil Gabbar Singh? Besides, it begs the question: Who is responsible for a character? In censorship cases, it is usually the writer who is considered the creator responsible for his literary creatures. The bench’s remarks have implicated both creator and creature by refusing to entertain the petitions of the director, scriptwriter and actor.

In Luigi Pirandello’s famous play Six Characters in Search of an Author, the characters appear to be incomplete creations of the writer. This idea was recently voiced in a completely different context by the writer S Hareesh. His novel Meesha, unleashed a storm when one of his characters made lewd remarks about women who went to temples. The novelist was accused of hurting religious sentiments as well as being derogatory to women. Although a petition seeking its ban was dismissed by the Supreme Court, the magazine that was publishing the novel in serialised form withdrew it and the novel saw the light of day only because a publishing company came forward to publish it.

Hareesh did something no author has ever done before — he protested against his own character. Conceiving of the fictional space as an independent republic where it would be disastrous for characters to be confined by the whims of the author, he stated: “I too record my protest and indignation against the anti-women statements made by the character. The character should have been more circumspect.” According to him, the world of the story was one of the most democratic spaces, where the characters need not always behave rationally and speak with political correctness.

The Supreme Court does not appear to have taken note of his concept of the independent republic of letters. If actors can be held responsible for the lines they speak, can similar runaway characters be likewise punished for their crimes? Can the author, as James Joyce envisioned, remain like the god of creation, “within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails?” Authors then henceforth cannot be accountable for all their self-willed and reprobate characters.

It remains to be seen if legal institutions will be willing to accept this idea of autonomy of the literary republic and its citizens. While the recent remarks appear to be allowing the writer some relief by allowing him to share the burden with the actor, it is definitely placing an additional burden on actors by forcing them to read a script entirely before accepting a role. This also adds one more round of vetting besides usual institutional filters like the CBFC. This also makes the artist’s vision of an autonomous and egalitarian republic of the arts with free and democratically empowered characters a very distant dream indeed.

The writer teaches at IIT, Kanpur

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