John Stuart Mill has argued in his book ‘On Liberty’ that the price paid for stifling freedom of expression is “the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind”. Yet the limitation on this fundamental right has been a dominating theme in most public debates. The qualified nature of this right under Article 19 has often restricted the scope of creative expression especially in the field of art and entertainment. Controversies over films such as Lipstick under My Burkha, Padmaavat and Udta Punjab has undoubtedly highlighted the paternalistic mindset and never ending conflict of right to free speech versus one’s right to take offence. However the penetration of internet and rise of independent content creators has brought a glimmer of hope.
A prominent instance of this new found creative liberty is the Netflix original series Sacred Games. It is a triumph of creative freedom. What sets apart this series is the liberty in storytelling that its creators have received. It is a parallel story of struggling honest cop Sartaj Singh and notorious Mumbai gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. Unlike an invincible Bollywood hero, Sartaj Singh is flawed and struggling with conflict of interest; while gangster Gaitonde’s language is filthy and actions immoral. Sacred Games is a mirror of societal truth with honest depiction of urban slang, fearless criticism of political system and a strong standpoint on religion. The creators have explored the dark alleys of experimentation that most mainstream creators shy away from. However the real backbone of this creative courage is the open and fearless space provided by online video on demand platforms.
Similarly, accessibility of internet has stimulated a rapid growth of new generation music creators. This has made music a powerful channel of social expression. Vivian Fernandes a.k.a. DIVINE has emerged from being an underground Mumbai rapper to a mainstream music performer. His music mostly based on life in Mumbai slums is a socio-political commentary and portrayal of aspirations, grievances and struggles of the poor and vulnerable. This underground hip hop music scene of Mumbai is in strong resemblance to the hip hop culture of late 80’s in Compton, California; where black rap artists spoke of oppression, police harassment and crimes against African Americans. Alternate medium and forms of Indian music has thus been a strong means of freedom for the common masses whose voices are often shushed by the rich and powerful.
In an ironic manner, stand up comedy has evolved into another alternate means of expressing serious political opinions. Artists like Varun Grover and Kunal Kamra have gained immense popularity for their satire and edgy political humour. Their jokes have forthright truth and outspoken criticism of Indian politics, upholding the right to freedom of speech. Varun Grover’s collaboration with singer Rahul Ram and satirist Sanjay Rajoura in “Aisi Taisi Democracy” is a subtle diatribe on political issues through comedy and music, which reflects the fearlessness of artists to have a public voice. Social media has been a major impetus to such success of political comedy and its accessibility to common people.
In a contemporary India where ethics of television journalism is at question and lives of journalists at threat, alternate medium of public expression has gained the limelight. Consequently, internet has become the tool of free speech that art and entertainment industry has long been searching for. Along with this, the government’s support for net neutrality is another progressive step towards achieving the right to express freely. However it is the responsibility of the citizens to use this liberty with sanity, so as to protect the “moral courage of the human mind” that Mills has stressed upon.