Sneha Mary Christall, II Year MA English
Voltaire once said, “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” Strange, isn’t it, that his words still hold good two and a half centuries later? Our generation has seen how writers, activists and whistleblowers have been publicly discredited for upholding truth and their right to free speech. Just last year, the Tamil writer and scholar Perumal Murugan came under fire for writing on caste divisions, hurting the sentiments of the Kongu community of Thiruchengode, Tamil Nadu. Even as you read this, more Kashmiri civilians will lose their sight to pellets and state oppression. Edward Snowden who has been variously called a legend, a blasphemer and a rationalist is currently a refugee, living in exile for exposing the NSA’s global surveillance programs. These instances have reinstated what popular imagination and culture have presupposed: Big Brother is watching you.
I only watched the 2006 German movie Das Leben der Anderen (translated as The Lives of Others) recently. This drama film dealing with the monitoring of East Berlin residents by the German secret police won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Quite pointedly, the film is set in 1984. It is a timeless social commentary on state surveillance and the hostility of those in political power towards writers and dramatists. The goal of the Stasi, the secret police of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) is quite simply “to know everything”. When the stoic Stasi Wiesler is given the assignment of spying on the famous playwright Georg Dreyman, he shows absolute commitment to his duty. However, Wiesler soon develops attachment to the playwright and his lover whom he watches from his surveillance booth. He becomes further disillusioned when he realises that the true motive of the task is misguided. He asks his superior, Lt. Col. Grubitz, “Is this why we joined?”
To avoid being blacklisted, Dreyman smuggles a mini typewriter into his flat. This is symbolic of his reduced power and his inability to write freely about his political opinions. Using it, he writes anonymously against the state’s neglect of its citizens’ rights. Wiesler rewrites whole transcripts of Dreyman’s conversations so he wouldn’t be revealed as a conspirator against GDR. He hides the typewriter so that the Stasi wouldn’t find it during their official search of Dreyman’s residence. Dreyman soon discovers Wiesler’s role in protecting him. Four years later, following the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Wiesler could finally cut all ties with the Stasi. In this new and free world, he comes across Dreyman’s new novel, Sonate vom Guten Menschen (translated as Sonata for a Good Man) dedicated to him.
The movie quite clearly demonstrates that even the most rigid minds are capable of feeling something more human. Wiesler, who is trained to feel or show no emotion, gradually becomes capable of risking his life for Dreyman. His mask of impassivity falls off to reveal a mind broadened by ideas of liberalism and free speech. Dreyman’s novel is also symbolic of the role literature and theatre can play in ensuring that dominant ideologies are resisted, revisited and questioned. The Brazilian writer and politician Augusto Boal’s work in this area is a testimony to how theatre when directed towards social change, has the potential to rewrite histories and create reform.
In July this year, Perumal Murugan returned from his self- imposed exile with an English translation of his short story Neer Vilayattu. This instance reaffirms the resilience of those who are silenced or pushed to the margins. Like the numerous posters that depict actors blinded by pellet guns, resistance will continue to exist in all its forms.