Censorship is a slippery slope - Thumindu Dodantenna | Sunday Observer

Censorship is a slippery slope - Thumindu Dodantenna

A scene from the teledrama Koombiyo
A scene from the teledrama Koombiyo

A decision to speak up against recent calls for censorship of radio dramas sponsored by the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) and the launch of a police inquiry against a controversially named book, cost popular Koombiyo actor Thumindu Dodantenna some less than liberal-minded fans last week. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the artiste who flew to small-screen fame with his portrayal of the charming con-man ‘Jehan’ stands by his decision to oppose censorship and suppression of creative expression in any form, saying it leads to self-censorship, media suppression and ultimately societal breakdown

Excerpts:

Q. Your decision to speak up against censorship of books and ONUR radio dramas last week has come in for criticism, some of it from your fan base. In hindsight, is it a decision you regret?


Thumindu Dodantenna

A. I don’t regret what I said. I stand by my statement and will continue to think the same way in the future. It saddens me that viewers did not understand the message I was putting across. I spoke on their behalf, even though they don’t understand it. I spoke on behalf of their rights as viewers to have access to artistic work. But, rather than grasp my message, they are clinging to the title of a book and finding fault with it.

As an actor I have been in this industry for about 20 years now. I know as actors we should be ready for both praise and criticism. Audiences are very sensitive. They will scold us on the basis of our characters in a particular teledrama. When I was acting in Koombiyo depending on the script in that week’s episode, our fans would scold me and the next week if Kalana’s character did something that they didn’t like, they would find fault with him. People are very sensitive. I am not worried about criticism – it’s normal in this field.

Secondly, I put forward an unpopular view, and I know it. In Athula Pathirana’s drama Twelve Angry Men, in which I also acted, there’s a statement where one character states “I thought the people of this country had a right to hold a view that is not popular,” this is exactly what I want to ask the people who were my fans and are now finding fault with me. Don’t we have the right to bear an unpopular opinion? Should we always accept and adhere to the popular view? Why is it the moment you put forward an unpopular sentiment in this country, you are called a traitor or a person who is working to destroy a religion and culture?

Q. In your opinion this whole issue, is it a problem about religion and art or just a political one?

A. This is very much a political issue. Everything is intertwined with politics now. Today, even religion has been politicised. If someone genuinely cares about Buddhism and its teaching, there is absolutely no need to bring it into the political context. I have said this repeatedly – it is the Government that first allows the release of these artistic creations. Then they subsequently censor it. At first, the Government approved Malaka’s radio drama and then censored its title. They did the same with Sayakkakara’s book. What this shows is that governments don’t stand on principle. They have no inclination in which direction the country’s art, literature and society should flow. In that sense this censorship is political. This whole community is nonplussed. In such a society and in such politics, the Government has no idea how to navigate this situation. Representatives of the Government act according to their whims and fancies. This censorship is being used to agitate Buddhists and not because of a genuine concern about the religion. Agitating religion and nationality is how politics operate. The objective is always populism and popularity. So, in that sense, it is very much a political issue.

Q. Certain sections of the Government believe that it is the duty of the state to uphold the rights of religions practised in the country.

A. It clearly is the responsibility of the State. But, what does it mean to uphold the rights of religion? Where do you draw the line? Does it mean clinging to the title of a book that is nothing more than a play on words? The State has no uniform policy on censoring books and dramas. This is why I am saying they look after the interests of religion first. Today, there are Buddhist nuns (Mehenin Wahasnse) who do not have National IDs. We cannot hold a Dhamma Council (Dhamma Sangayanawa). There are numerous issues that Buddhists face at the moment – issues that need the attention of the Government and require immediate solutions. If the Government is only concerned about something this trivial, while ignoring all other issues, I don’t see this move as something done to uphold the integrity of the religion, but merely to provoke the people.

Q. The author of the book Budunge Rasthiyaduwa says there is nothing in the context that is degrading Buddhism and it is only the title that has attracted negativity. Do you agree that this book does not insult Buddhism or the Buddha?

A. Firstly I must say here that my opinion on censorship and free expression at this moment is not merely based on this book that has caused controversy. I am not going to talk or justify the contents of the book in question. I also have criticisms of the book. I didn’t stand up for it. I stood up against censorship.

The message I wanted to send is that the Government should not take it upon itself to implement censorship. Instead, they should let people decide what they should read, watch or listen to. They will decide whether it is good or bad for them. Depending on their take on art, literature and entertainment they might accept or reject an artistic work – therefore, leave it to them. The moment a government takes steps to censor artistic work, it automatically inculcates a fear within artists and imposes limits upon their creativity. Our audiences are very intelligent. My point is that just because I may not agree with the book, doesn’t mean I want it to be taken away from potential readers.

Q. At the press conference, you made the statement that “this censorship is a joke, but it is no laughing matter.” How serious do you think the consequences of this ‘joke’ will be?

A. The thing with censorship is that it starts off small, but eventually there will be no end to it. It provides licence to censor anything in the future as well.

The final result will be to give any Government in power total authority over arts and communication. Media censorship will follow, and that will eventually give licence to kill and suppress journalists. We have already seen this happen in the past, with journalists being beaten and killed. All that was perceived by censoring art. Subsequently, it develops into self-censorship.

Then people will only see and hear what their Government wants them to. This is the dark result I was referring to. It will end up in a complete breakdown of society. The joke is that the State itself first approves these works and subsequently stifles them by censoring it. And it’s a sad joke we cannot laugh about.

We now live in a country without policies. The arguments that they have put forward to substantiate censoring are without rationale. The use of the terms ‘tharuwan saranai’ and ‘nihon sapa labewa’, they claim was degrading to the religion. I don’t see it the same way. We have the creative liberty to use words in a language in any way. It’s just a play on words. Ediriwira Sarathchandra authored a book called ‘Dharmika Samajayak’. He was assaulted for writing that book.

Q. Sections of the artistic community actively worked to bring about change in January 2015. When the same Government that rode to power on the wings of such movements seeks to censor and suppress, is that a let down?

A. I do not think I have sufficient grounds to comment on that. I took part in that press conference as an artist. There were many groups and artists who were present there, I was just one of them. My objective was not to align myself with any person or group but simply to stand up against this decision. There were many artists and activists present there. I had no political affiliation – I went as an independent artiste. 

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