Paromita Vohra: Rights versus copyrights


Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

Last week, archive.org, a non-profit website, found itself blocked in India by government order. Among the many things stored on the site are public domain books, copyright free music, software, video and so on. It also saves millions of web pages as a record of the Internet, so that if someone (like a government) alters information on a web page, you can go to archive.org's Internet Wayback Machine and find an earlier version of a web page. Initiatives like this allow a space for people to access, in other words, what governments restrict and corporate markets often don't consider worth their while.

Investigation revealed the block resulted from an order acquired by producers of two films — Lipstick Under My Burkha, and When Harry Met Sejal. The order, which sought to protect copyright interests of the films, by preventing piracy, pre-emptively sought to block anyone who could potentially upload material — even legally. It wasn't intentional. But, it was uncaring.

One must protect one's work and commerce is an important concern. But, this is an intriguing coincidence given how heavily both films mined anti-censorhip language and freedom expression in promotions. One might argue that Lipstick Under My Burkha, especially, owes its success in significant measure to the way it was able to mobilise anti-censorship and feminist politics into marketing virality, converting the viewing and liking of the film into a kind of progressive cred.

Question of censorship are too easily subsumed by the idea of opposition and are easily presented as political while obscuring the commercial. Pahlaj Nihalani was an easy enemy, a gift of prejudiced, quotable, opposable dialogue that kept giving. It becomes easy to define oneself as progressive in opposition to something like that, without having to define the real contours of that progressive politics, the larger contexts of freedom of expression one is invested in, when asking others to be invested in our own.

Similarly, piracy is an easy villain resulting in melodramatic breast beating from corporate producers, without anyone querying what kind of copyright regime they promote — how it protects (or doesn't) creative and labour rights of artists or takes freely from the repository of common culture without giving anything for free, or deepen and widen markets organically. Nor does anyone query how the world of piracy and torrents has helped shape audiences, as well as filmmakers who pursue a kind of world-cinema language under the somewhat disingenuous label 'indie film'.

Most interestingly, those who position themselves against censorship when their work, or a work they believe in, is attacked, are often quite willing to support and demand banning of another work which is regressive in their world view. It is also rare to see these solidarities extend from more visible spaces (like Bollywood) towards lesser known worlds — say of a documentary filmmaker, like Divya Bharati, who was recently persecuted for her documentary Kakkoos ,or writers, like Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, whose book The Adivasi Will Not Dance was banned by the Jharkhand government last week, after a prolonged witch-hunt.

The question is, if, for all their clever — and contemptuous —trolling of Mr. Nihalani, people remain so unthinkingly implicated in larger regimes of censorship, will his going away create greater freedom of expression? Or the shutting down of piracies lead to a richer creative landscape? We know the answer in our hearts.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com

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