Tamil film “Vishwaroopam” is yet
another causality that’s caught in the mire of freedom of
expression verses hurting people’s sentiment’s debate. Tamil Nadu
government has banned the movie after some Muslim groups protested
against scenes that they consider offensive. An out of court
settlement is being cobbled to play out this story.
The tussle over what is acceptable
material for movie audiences is a recurring theme in India. If the
movie offends someone, it risks being unsuitable for viewing for
everyone. This trend is slowly gaining currency in the country
with no permanent solution in sight.
What is apparent is the rapidly
modernizing country is unable to carry forward its largely
conservative society that sees everything from the prism of caste,
color, region, religion language etc.
One wrong move by a filmmaker and
cry of hurting the sentiments is being echoed. Once such shrieks
reach its crescendo the film is taken off from the cinema halls
and that’s the end of the story.
Film-makers have never had it easy in India and there is a long
list of movies that are banned on one pretext or other. Films like
‘DAM999’, ‘Jodhaa Akbar’, ‘Arakshan’, ‘Fire’, ‘Water’, ‘The Da
Vinci Code’, ‘Black Friday’ etc, have all hit the wall with
political or religious groups objecting even after making it past
the censor board.
The Supreme Court Judgment on a
similar controversy about “Ore Oru Gramathile”, a movie that was
critical of the reservation policy in Tamil Nadu’s educational
institutions is case in point:
“Freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat
of demonstration and processions or threat of violence… it would
be tantamount to negation of the rule of law and surrender to
blackmail and intimidation… ”
Sadly, this judgment has not been
all that successful in granting this right to freedom of
expression. The movie ‘Dam 999’ continues to be banned in Tamil
Nadu that’s about the Mullaperiyar dam issue.
The Supreme Court has declined to lift the ban stating: “The
people are expecting this issue (of the Mullaperiyar dam) will be
resolved. At this stage, why should we aggravate the situation not
only in Tamil Nadu but also in Kerala? We can’t close our eyes to
the objections and decide the case purely on legal aspects. We
have to respect the sentiments of the people… The Tamil Nadu
government says if the film is released, relations between the two
States will be affected. When an elected government raises this
issue, can the court ignore?”
The case of Vishwaroopam falls on similar category. Can a State
government deploy security forces to all the cinema halls in Tamil
Nadu, argues Chief Minister Jayalalitha? Will the people go to the
movie theaters under the fear of the bomb blast even being
protected by gun totting policemen, is another version of the
argument being belted out.
Kamal Hassan has done the right thing striking a compromise with
some Muslim groups objecting to the movie and has agreed to cut
some scenes that they feel had hurt their sentiments.
The veteran actor argued that ultimately the release of the film
was prime important to him then anything else. He ruled out moving
the Supreme Court on revoking the Madras High Court order that
stayed the film’s release, saying the matter is now amicably
Kamal Hassan has bought peace with groups objecting to his movie
Vishwaroopam and this has paved the way of its release, but has he
done the right thing or has set a negative precedent for the
future recurrence of similar issue.
Censoring movies in the name of maintaining public peace,
respecting emotions of people and similar other reasons are too
naïve and simplistic arguments in front of freedom of expression
rights. It may give wrong message to the public and likely to be
misused in the future. The best course would be to let the viewers
watch the movie and form their own opinion about it.
Nonetheless, recurrence of similar issues is the point of debate.
Hence, a permanent solution is essential to such problem. It is
imperative to enact a new law and the court judgments on
Shankarappa and Ranarajan cases can act as the bacon light in that
In the prevailing circumstances, it is better to have a rating
body than a Censor Board of the very nature we have at present.
The most important criteria regarding such body should be that the
Government can forward its suggestions/recommendations but the
decision must be taken by it independently.
The power of censorship delegated to the States has to be narrowed
down drastically. They must satisfy the Central authority as to
why the ban in their territory is indispensable and that there is
no alternative left.
In India while we enthusiastically profess right to information,
we cannot sit back and ban films and censor information. Banning
motion pictures is equivalent to banning the right of freedom of
speech and expression.
If artists, playwrights and film makers of India are to exercise
their right to free speech appropriately, the utmost necessity is
to do away with the restrictive clauses under Article 19(2).
The test for allowing restrictions upon free speech should be more
stringent. Legal restraints upon individual freedom of speech
should only be tolerated where they are absolutely necessary to
prevent infliction of actual harm. If at all, any limiting line is
to be drawn in the extreme cases, it shall be left to the
judiciary on which the country has enormous faith.
In sum, if democracy has to evolve, screening of films and
documentaries can never be denied for reasons based on mere
speculation. Some developments regarding such subject are
encouraging; but others are depressing. Needless to say we still
have greater heights to scale in this direction.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a
journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org