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Films and the politics of convenience

A. Srivathsan

Suspending screening of The Da Vinci Code carries the seeds of worrying overreach.

IN 1952, on an auspicious Deepavali day, the Tamil film Parasakthi was released with much fanfare. This first film of Sivaji Ganesan was an instant hit and its dialogues became immensely popular. At the same time, the film drew protests. Many scenes and dialogues were perceived as hurting Hindu sentiments. Scenes that criticised idol worship, temple priests, and Hindu beliefs were objected to. In particular, scenes where a priest attempts to rape a woman in a temple and another where an idol is mocked by the protagonist were found to be extremely provocative. Sections of the public demanded that the film be banned. The Madras Government requested the Government of India to reconsider the film certification. None of this was to happen and the film ran to full houses, bringing laurels to the script and dialogue writer, M. Karunanidhi.

It looks like history has come full circle. In 2006, the Government of fifth-time Chief Minister Karunanidhi has ordered the suspension of the release of The Da Vinci Code. The Government of Tamil Nadu put forth the reason that this film would affect the religious feelings and sentiments of the Christian community and disrupt peace and tranquillity in the State. The issue in focus is not which community the government supports and which it does not. In fact, such a discussion distracts from the important issue of allowing multiple views to circulate and foster tolerance of contestations and criticisms.

In Tamil Nadu, many communities have time and again objected to films. In 1971, when Cho Ramaswamy's Muhammad Bin Tughlaq was released, a few Muslims protested in front of the theatre on Anna Salai, Chennai. They felt some of the dialogues were offensive. Politicians too did not relish this film. Sections of the Brahmin community strongly criticised films like Arangetram (1973) and Savithri (1980), as they found these films portraying their community in a poor light. Some of the Brahmin associations requested the State Government to stop the screening of Savithri. Simultaneously, a writ petition was filed in the High Court seeking a ban on the film. In spite of the protests, these films were screened and received a good viewership.

In 1981, DMK and AIADMK members clashed in the Lok Sabha on whether to ban the Tamil film Thanneer Thanneer. This famous play by Komal Swaminathan was about the pathetic state of villages and the suffering of the rural poor. The script of this play had been severely censored by the Tamil Nadu police. When it was released as a film, attempts were made to ban it. Representations were made to the Government of India to revoke the certification. Two more films, Sivapu Malli and Varumayin Niram Sivappu, were added to this list. These films were accused of promoting the naxal movement and alleged to be against the Gandhian principle of non-violence. The fate of Gautam Ghose's Telugu film Maa Bhoomi (1979) on the Telangana peasant rising was even worse. The police seized the film when it was to be screened in Thanjavur district.

In May 1987, the AIADMK Government amended the Tamil Nadu Cinemas (Regulation) Act, 1955. This amendment proposed that any film that depicts politicians, particularly MLAs and the Chief Minister, in a derogatory manner should be prohibited from exhibition. The bill, to quote The Hindu editorial criticism, was "a petty response" to films the government considered critical of its functioning. Mr. Karunanidhi opposed this amendment and said it would not stand the test of law. Producers of two films, Needhikku Thandanai and Makkal En Pakkam, tried to obtain a court stay against this amendment. They feared the bill might be invoked to ban the screening of their films. The dialogue of one of the two films, Needhiku Thandanai, was written by Mr. Karunanidhi.

Rajaji's response

In all these incidents, the films were not banned but screened. Rajaji's response to Parasakthi is worth recalling in the present context. He was unhappy with Parasakthi but allowed it to be screened. He said the course of freedom could not be dammed and things could go on until people learnt themselves about what was worthless.

The Cinematograph Act, 1952, clearly stipulates that the Central Board of Film Certification, constituted by the Central Government, can certify whether a film is fit for exhibition or not. But the State Government can suspend the exhibition of a film if it considers that it will cause a breach of peace. This arrangement has its logic and use. Hence discussion on how a State Government can ban a film like The Da Vinci Code, which is certified by the Central Board of Film Certification, is not entirely valid.

What draws criticism to the Tamil Nadu Government's directive is that it points to a politics of convenience. The DMK's interpretation of what constitutes freedom of expression is not consistent with its earlier stand.

The compulsions of electoral politics, rather than anything profoundly ideological or a concern for law and order, are behind the decision. The present suspension carries the seeds of worrying overreach. This was evident in the case of Fanaa, a harmless Hindi movie twisted and banned for untenable reasons. If a code of censorship is required, it should be administered liberally, as S.S. Vasan, the doyen of Tamil cinema, contended in 1954. It has to be liberal enough to promote views about society and its culture.

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