Journalist | Writer | Analyst
21 October 2014
So Everyone’s a Censor Now
The violent attack by some fringe political groups in Tamil Nadu against a cinema hall which will screen the film Kaththi underlines a growing problem with the public sphere in India: we don’t know where to draw the line between protest – which is legitimate and necessary in any society – and the forcible imposition of one’s views and beliefs on others who think differently.
Radical Tamil groups do not like the fact that the producer of Kaththi, which stars the popular actor Vijay, allegedly has business links with President Mahinda Rajapakse of Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan leader is reviled by a large section of the population in Tamil Nadu, which blames him for the war crimes the Lankan army undoubtedly committed in its fight against the terrorist LTTE, especially as the bloody conflict drew to an end. But instead of calling for a peaceful boycott of the film, these groups decided to take the law into their own hands, knowing full well that the state police would not act against them.
Thanks to their own competitive populism, mainstream Tamil political parties like the ruling AIADMK and DMK have either encouraged or tolerated violent outbursts by small Dravidian groups against Lankan targets and tried to establish themselves as the true champion of Tamil rights in Sri Lanka. Both parties pushed the Government of India to take a tough stand against the Rajapaksa regime at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and have actively discouraged visible contact between the island nation and Tamil Nadu.
The AIADMK protested when Sri Lankan military officers attended training courses at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington near Ooty. Lankan cricketers have been banned from playing in Chennai and Jayalalithaa, who was Chief Minister at the time, actually forced a Lankan school-level football team to leave the state before it could play any matches.
The legal justification for this strong-arming revolved around the claim that the presence of Sri Lankans in Tamil Nadu would create a law and order problem. Given this kind of political signaling from the top, it is hardly surprising that threatening violence has become the preferred method for fringe leaders and parties seeking to gain influence by banning movies, books, games, exhibitions and other forms of cultural or intellectual expression with which they disagree.
Two years ago, a small group of Muslim organisations used the threat of violence to ensure Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam wasn’t screened. After failing to get the Tamil Nadu government to uphold his rights as the producer of a film that had been duly certified by the Central Board of Film Certification, Kamal Haasan was forced to compromise with the protestors and cut a number of scenes.
Prior to that, Tamil nationalist groups successfully prevented the screening of Dam 999, a movie that allegedly took Thiruvananthapuram’s side in the Mullaperiyar dam controversy between Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The irony is that this sort of mob censorship succeeds despite the Supreme Court repeatedly saying that once a film has been cleared by the censor board, it is the duty of the state government to allow its peaceful exhibition by acting against those who threaten violence.
In its landmark 1989 judgment in the case of the film Oru Oru Gramathile, the Supreme Court held that such a film “cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstrations and processions or threats of violence.” To allow that to happen “would [be] tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation.” The same principle was again upheld by the apex court in 2011 when the Uttar Pradesh government banned Aarakshan citing a threat to law and order.
While district authorities are allowed to suspend the screening of a film if there is a clear and present danger of a breach of the peace, it is now settled law that state governments do not have the authority to impose a pre-emptive ban. That is why bans that state governments can no longer impose are now increasingly accomplished by threats against film distributors, cinema hall owners and others involved in the commercial side of the movie business.
Often, the message is conveyed violently, as has happened in the case of Kaththi. But in Gujarat, films on the 2002 riots like Parzania and Firaaq which portrayed the Narendra Modi administration in poor light were “voluntarily” not screened by movie halls across the state as an act of “solidarity” with the then Chief Minister. Aamir Khan’s 2006 film, Fanaa, was also informally banned in Gujarat because the actor had spoken out in favour of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
In the five months since Narendra Modi has been Prime Minister, the censor board has itself become less tolerant of films that the government does not like. On the Home Ministry’s advice, the censor board withdrew the certificate it had earlier given to the Punjabi film Qaum de Heere on the assassination of Indira Gandhi. And last month, it simply banned En Dinon Muzaffarnagar, a documentary film by Meera Choudhary and the late Shubradeep Chakravorty on how the recent communal riots in that UP district were politically engineered.
At a time when Bollywood is striving to innovate, and several new film makers have emerged who wish to show India as it is, chances are that the number of organisations which claim their sentiments have been hurt by a story or an actor or a producer or a film is likely to grow. Unless the courts act firmly in defence of the freedom of expression, there will almost certainly be many more bans.
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Story First Published: October 21, 2014 22:38 IST
High time Indian film makers started to release movies straight to Youtube, and teach people how to use VPNs to bypass the Internet censors (as is the case in countries like Iran and China).