In an interview to The Guardian in 2003, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi had optimistically declared: “The system can’t last forever. I can wait.” Hounded as he was even then for his anti-establishment films, he could not have foreseen how long the wait would last. That system, Iran’s political religious complex, on Monday convicted Panahi of involvement in propaganda against the regime. It then sentenced him to six years in jail, and barred him from directing or producing films, writing scripts, travelling abroad, and giving interviews to domestic or foreign media, for 20 years.
For the 49-year-old director of such films as The Circle, The White Balloon, Crimson Gold and Offside, it could be nothing short of a tragic gag on his most creative period.
India has had its own run-ins with public figures who have pushed the line between the rights of the individual and those of the state. Controversies centered on M.F. Husain and Taslima Nasreen have caused grave debates about India’s liberal democratic credentials. More recently, statements by activist Arundhati Roy and others about Kashmir’s option to secede have been seen as inciting rebellion.
To its credit, India’s response to such acts has evolved. While Husain and Nasreen faced the state’s considerable apathy, Roy was treated at best with mild disregard. This is not an anarchist position—threats to internal law and order, even if they come from artistic expression, should rightly be dealt with strongly. But upholding individual freedom has only bolstered the legitimacy of India’s democracy.
In comparison, Panahi’s neo-realist criticism of social dependencies in Iran is less controversial. Rather, it was his outspoken support for the reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi during the disputed 2009 presidential election, and his mourning for protestors killed in the polls’ aftermath, that riled a paranoid regime.
Even then, Iran has missed a trick in sentencing Panahi to a harsh future, when granting him liberty could have balanced some of its deplorable reputation worldwide. Perhaps Iran’s authoritarian regime doesn’t care. But it is at junctures such as these that the value of existent liberties in countries such as India can really be appreciated.
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