“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist. Without the freedom to challenge, even to satirise all orthodoxies, including religious orthodoxies, it ceases to exist. Language and the imagination cannot be imprisoned, or art will die, and with it, a little of what makes us human.”
-Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands
Censorship is something that has been with us ever since organized society came into being. Although society has come a long way in terms of freedom of expression, with the birth of efficient vehicles of human expression such as the media and the internet, it is needless to say that we are still not completely free in the things we say and do: individuals entrenched in inflexible notions of tradition or religion, governments, even Internet Service Providers, and practically any responsible authority in some way tends to edit or block the flow of information or oppress the messengers of it. Censored, a forum theatre, staged by players from Beyond Borders in association with the British Council, painted these issues in vivid hues of questions and thought-provoking discussion on the 20th of November. Is censorship sometimes justifiable? How far can an organized society function morally and efficiently with or without any censorship? Are we all part of a larger corrupt system that works in subtle ways to curtail our freedom to express ourselves? If so, how does one escape such a system? These were some of the questions that took strong grip of the evening atmosphere in the British Council hall, as the characters on-stage portrayed the struggles of various victims of censorship and oppression. One could not help but mentally dive headfirst into the issue addressed what with the act opening with a short excerpt from the movie V for Vendetta famous for its anti-censorship rebellion-revolution message.
The plot of the play revolved around the central characters Ashan and Kumar; Kumar light-heartedly forwards an absurd SMS urging people to boycott movies by South Indian actors who do not support the movement against the civil war in Sri Lanka, and gets arrested by authorities for the ‘offence’; Ashan, meanwhile, struggles with his conscience between the awareness of his spotless reputation as the son of a prosperous businessman and his obligation to help his friend in a questionable situation. Minor characters in the play, such as Ashan’s conservative mother, Ashan’s girlfriend and the officer who arrests Kumar, also helped raise questions of the scope that oppression has in our everyday lives.
But to know what made this story any different from any other theatre act in Colombo, one must know what exactly a forum-theatre is. It is an experience made entertaining yet absolutely productive because of its two essentially important parts; theatre: entertaining passionate acting by the Beyond Borders youngsters, as well as enthusiastic members of the audience, and forum: lively debate and discussion amongst people of different ethnicities, nationalities and points of view seated before the stage. The results of the ‘forum’ are implemented into the theatre: the suggestions made by members of the audience to improve the hypothetical situation of the plot were literally incorporated into a repeated performance of the play.
The event was compeered by the witty youth activist and self-proclaimed cynic Kumaravadivel Guruparan, a.k.a. Guru to the audience, who guided them through the scenes of the forum-theatre and through the evolution of their ideas. Audience members were made to take the place of characters on stage to demonstrate their suggestions for improvement, and spontaneous epiphanies were thrown out for discussion and rehashing, evident of the awareness of ‘the system’ of oppression that many of us silently consent to, and how we could reconstruct it as a people. Such was a highly interactive, constructive and socially successful event.
The concepts, ideas and images from the theatre performance and the audience discussions, lasted in the minds of those who attended Censored long after the 2-hour forum-theatre session was over. The questions raised against the powers that suppress our right to speak and act freely were also accompanied by possible answers and solutions to those questions, and an avenue for larger questions and a wider outlook on common matters was opened. With the seriousness of such subjects fused with the light humour and enthusiasm of an audience and theatre crew with a love for art, what better way than via forum-theatre to intellectually discuss and resolve cultural and social issues? We can only hope Colombo will be graced with yet another brilliant production very soon!