“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”  French philosopher Voltaire’s words echo how fiercely I feel about freedom of expression.

I am deeply troubled when we allow someone to be booked for liking a certain post on Facebook or when the office of a news channel is vandalised because some people dislike its reportage. I feel the same when we remain silent about the censor board’s ludicrous demand of banning the use of the word "Bombay" in films.

I felt violated when MF Husain’s paintings were vandalised or when Tamil writer Perumal Murguan’s book was banned. The cold-blooded murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi for defending free speech and rational thought left me feeling anguished and vulnerable.

Personal connection

I have been at the receiving end of attacks over the years – during the release of Fire, the filming of Water and the marketing of Firaaq. The attackers were self-proclaimed moral and culture police who sought to decide what we must watch, wear, think, express, read and write.

If art did not play a subversive role, the conservatives would not feel threatened. While art alone cannot create a revolution, it has a way of influencing our subconscious and conscious response.

I think that Fire created more awareness about issues of homosexuality, forcing us to bring it out of the closet. As we now question the archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality, I think Fire played its role in helping bring the conversation into the public space.

Firaaq did not end communal violence, but it questions prejudice, the struggles of identity and in some way became a mirror for what needs to be seen.

Good over evil

Every film that raises pertinent questions has actually opened doors for other influential films. As audiences, if we don’t rise up in defence of such films, we stand to lose. We need to remember that any form of censorship is harmful in the long run. This applies even to things we consider terrible. If we use censorship for things that offend us, we should be aware that one day it will be applied to things that we hold dear.

Freedom of expression fuels good and bad, but we have to take the leap of faith in the hope that only good will survive the test of time. Society can only progress when it fosters multiple ideas. I don’t want to be educated by the same noise, but by difference voices so that I can make an informed choice.

The world evolves because of courageous voices that challenge the status quo. Manto, the maverick Pakistani writer, was one such significant voice. Despite being tried on six occasions, he relentless fought against authority and orthodoxy. Manto believed in the redemptive power of his writing and of literature in general. He once said, “If you cannot bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times.” This was not arrogance, but showed Manto’s resolve to express what he saw and felt without dilution.

Democracy is what we have chosen and rightly so. How then can we disregard its strongest pillar? Despite severe threats, many fearless writers, artists, journalists and citizens continue to defend our right to freedom of speech, sticking their neck out for all of us. They know, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.