“Vishwaroopam” and Freedom of Expression

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 getting settled.
 
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 direction.
 
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 sedalimujtaba@yahoo.com