A man comes home from work to find his wife has been assaulted in their newly rented flat and taken to hospital with serious injuries. What happens when he finally has time with her alone? Ask this question in any nation in the world, and the story will be broadly the same. The couple embraces, he listens to her account of what happened and tries to ease her trauma. On film, the encounter will receive similar treatment, although an Indian movie might provide more overt displays of pain and anger than, say, a Swedish one.

Consider now a nation with a censorship code that forbids men and women from displaying any physical intimacy on screen? Surely it would preclude a depiction of the assault and its aftermath. Yet, the situation I described is central to Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning feature The Salesman, which has found a healthy viewership on general release in big Indian cities.

The protagonist of The Salesman, played by Shahab Hosseini, who won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance, is a teacher and actor involved in staging an Arthur Miller play. His co-actor in the play is his screen wife, played by Taraneh Alidoosti. How can these two cosmopolitan figures deal with the violence that befalls the woman, while eschewing the commonest human response of touching the beloved? What can the director dream up that will make the impossible believable? Farhadi introduces a persistent tension between husband and wife, whose roots remain unknown to the audience. Further, he creates a central character whose every decision cuts against the grain of what one would assume about him by reading his CV. Small, consistent jolts of the unexpected nudge us into accepting the couple’s improbable behaviour following the attack. Farhadi, Hosseini and Alidoosti succeed, almost, in making an artistic virtue from the brute necessity of censorship.

The Salesman, like much of the best Iranian cinema, brings to mind lipogrammatic literature in the way it works with, and around, terrible restrictions. A lipogram is a piece of writing that avoids using a particular letter or set of letters of the alphabet. Unlike censorship, a lipogram involves self-restraint, which can seem perverse when taken to extreme lengths. Georges Perec, the most famous composer of lipograms, wrote a novel titled La Disparition entirely without using the letter E, which is at least as important in the French language as it is in English. The reward for this remarkable self-discipline was a narrative full of surprising word combinations, moods, and relationships.

More often than not, however, restraints impede artistic achievement rather than spurring creativity. This is especially true when they are imposed by an authority like a state censor. The most unexpected moment in my viewing of The Salesman had nothing to do with Farhadi’s tussle with Iranian moral codes. It came when a line spoken by Hosseini was muted by local diktat. It happened at least twice during the film, and left me wondering what offended Indian censors that had been passed by the notoriously conservative Iranian panel. I guessed it was a word for whore that might have a Hindustani cognate and therefore be comprehensible to Indians. Whatever it was, the cuts illustrated how strict India’s standards can get. The problem is that the wider latitude Indian film-makers have provides an illusion of freedom and prevents them from working creatively with existing restraints to produce a lipogrammatic cinema like the best Iranian directors have done.

Movies versus the internet

I am sympathetic, therefore, to actor and director Amol Palekar’s petition, being heard in the Supreme Court, seeking a relaxation of Central Board of Film Certification censorship norms. Palekar’s plea bases itself on the fact that content on the internet faces little or no censorship despite the presence of material far more graphic and politically charged than anything acceptable in films that receive a public release in India. As I stated in an article discussing the history of freedom of expression in India, our current system “stops little of the hate speech and inflammatory calls to violence so freely spewed online, while choking the output of our theatre, cinema and visual art. It targets what is best in our culture while permitting the worst free reign”.

Despite my fundamental agreement with Palekar’s goal, I doubt the practical benefits of his move. What he hasn’t sufficiently taken into account is that the state is not the sole censor in India, or even the strictest one. The same goes for the committee headed by film-maker Shyam Benegal, which was set up to suggest guidelines for film certification and has recommended a shift towards self-certification. The culture of taking offence and responding violently is extraordinarily deep-rooted in civil society, and has the tacit support of the police and politicians. The state’s approval might come with severe restrictions but also provides a degree of security. In its absence, we risk far more frequent attacks and boycott calls by aggrieved groups, while providing the state an opportunity to wash its hands of conflicts, resulting in artists being crucified.

The eager consumption of pornography and strident political messages by the public does not equate to a widespread support for free expression as an abstract principle.

Two sides of the story

I can explain this best with reference to the work of a Pakistani artist named Rashid Rana, who was last month nominated one of the winners of the Asia Society’s Asia Art Award for 2017. Rana began achieving widespread recognition in the middle of the last decade with his photomosaics, each of which consisted of a large image composed of several smaller ones. The main image was always substantially different from its constituent parts, and the work’s meaning resided in the interaction between its macro and micro aspects. One of his most celebrated series, titled Veil, has head-shots of shuttlecock burqas, conventionally associated with Afghanistan and very conservative enclaves of South Asia. These images, on close viewing, are revealed to be composed of nude women from pornographic films. The contrast at first sight seems like a simplistic dichotomy between clichés of East/Islam and West/Liberalism. A second perspective is that the series is about similarity as much as about difference. In an essay about Rana’s photomosaics, the art historian Kavita Singh wrote, “The thousands of naked women are as depersonalised as the women behind the veil. Ultimately both kinds of women disappear and one sees a third presence, of the male, of desire and lust and anxiety and fear which turns relationship into control, which produces both the forcible covering and uncovering of the female body.”

Veil, 1: C Print + DIASEC 20 x 20 inches each 2004. (Image courtesy the artist and Chatterjee & Lal)

My own reading of the Veil series, which adds a further layer of complexity to these seemingly obvious artworks, is that they are as much about a conflict within a culture as they are about a conflict between cultures. A geographical analysis of Google searches reveals that the same societies, groups and (presumably) individuals that demand or support conservative codes are also among the most avid consumers of sexually explicit material. Rashid Rana’s photomosaics expose the chasm between what people do in private and what they expect in the public sphere, and outline a scenario in which modes of behaviour that appear mutually exclusive manage to co-exist comfortably.

That comfort is predicated on no attempts being made to apply universal principles or logic to behaviour, which is precisely what Amol Palekar’s petition attempts to do. Palekar desires to close that gap between what is officially permitted and what is actually accessible by pointing to its obvious hypocrisy, but he should be careful what he wishes for. The Indian state will do everything in its power to prevent film-makers from freely exploring sensitive subjects, and will have the backing of an overwhelming majority of Indians in that effort. If the divide is to be narrowed, it will not happen by raising the permissible level of creative freedom, but by restraining what can be accessed legally on the Web. Such attempts are bound to fail, but will create a new class of criminality, adding to the mass of Indian laws ignored by the public because they are irrational, outdated, or impossible to comply with, but brought into play during witch hunts and extortive raids.

Veil, 2: C Print + DIASEC 20 x 20 inches each 2004. (Image courtesy the artist and Chatterjee & Lal)