Originally Published 2013-02-07 00:00:00 Published on Feb 07, 2013
Considering that films and books, creator's freedom and that of the Press are not existential questions for which ready answers could still be found, whether enforceable or not, the answers too have to be in the realm of pragmatism.
Creators'freedom: Still an unclear field
All is well that ends well. Still, the end of the controversies attending on the release of the Tamil version of the big-budget, tri-lingual movie, ’Vishwaroopam’, across southern Tamil Nadu leaves behind questions. If left unaddressed in time, these questions, relating to a variety of issues, social, political and constitutional, have the potential to not only destroy a cash-cow in the film industry, with its inherent tendency to fail and flop at every turn, but also to disturb social and communal harmony, which has been under increasing strain in every way.

In the fast-tracked, new-generation socio-political milieu, as evidenced across the country in recent years, incomplete answers to such queries implies inadequate understanding of the problems. In turn, this could widen the existing vacuum and emerging gap in perceptions, for which the nation would end up paying a disproportionately high price in the years to come. It would still not know what had hit it, why and how. The shapeless, faceless ’aroopi’ nature of the issues and perceptions, as acknowledged and/or understood now could well have taken a ’Vishwaroopam’ of its own by then, putting the ’cultural nationalism’ of the past and the ’constitutional nationalism’ of the present under exceeding strain than already.

After the ’Vishwaroopam issue’ had been settled, but based on the community-induced court case nonetheless, other affected individuals and community organisations nearer home in Tamil Nadu have moved either the State Government or the Madras High Court, or both, with near-similar concerns pertaining to other Tamil films. Both having acted on the petitions moved by affected parties in the ’Vishwaroopam case’, they may now have to come up with guidelines of some sort, if only to avoid what they may end up concluding as frivolous proceedings.

It is not unlikely that future complaints of the nature could seek further and at times the farthest of differentiations to make out a case for governmental and/or judicial intervention of the kind. Going beyond film-releases, printed works too may come under the scanner. India has not heard the last of the issues flagged by the Centre’s ban on Salman Rushdie’s ’Satanic Verses’ (1981), based on a complaint from a diplomat-turned-parliamentarian who admitted to not having read the book. A decade and more later, the Tamil Nadu Government banned former Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan’s autobiography, ’Seshan - An Intimate Story’ (1995), where a reference had been made to DMK founder and former State Chief Minister, the late C N Annadurai.

Nationalist tinge

The question is not if we are going back to the days prior to Independence. Across the country, the colonial Government had the habit of banning movies and theatre-works with a ’nationalist tinge’, confiscate the security money deposited by ’errant newspapers’ and closing them down, for similar reasons. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gandhiji, Nehru and Subramania Bharati, were among those, who had suffered thus. So had faceless playwrights in various parts of British-India up to a point, and the princely States, too, subsequently.

As coincidence would again have it, Tamil film and media history in the country is replete with instances of the kind. There is the exhilarating story of the producers throwing open the cinema halls screening the Tamil film, ’Thyaga Bhoomi’ (1939), for free-viewing by the nationalist-minded when the British-India Government banned the same. Tamil playwrights, theatre-groups too had taken the message of nationalism and freedom movement to the unlettered masses in deeper packets.

Whole night’s plays would thus extend well into the crack of dawn, with the actors being called upon to repeat patriotic songs and dialogues without the story-line not having moved an inch. If not banned during day hours by the local police, then the sequence would be repeated, night after night, until it was time for the theatre troupe to shift camp to another village or town. Instances of the kind should abound in other parts of the country, as well.

Whither stands Law?

In the present case, even as the Tamil Nadu Government’s ban on ’Vishwaroopam’ was being challenged in the Madras High Court, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier State Government ban on another Tamil film, ’Dam 999’, citing similar reasons, pertaining to maintenance of law and order. Yet, there were other cases earlier, where the Supreme Court had held that the State Governments did not have the right to ban/censor any film, and the right rested only with the Central Board of Film Censors, a creature of the Union of India.

With the ’Vishwaroopam case’ not having reached the Supreme Court for fine-tuning of the law of the land, confusion may still persist, particularly in creative minds, despite the submerged news brought out by the ’Dam 999’ verdict. Should a distinction be made between the ’Dam 999’ case, where at the central issue is the live ’Mullaperiyar dispute’ between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and works of art that are exclusively in the realm of the creator’s imagination - and nothing more?

In the midst of the ’Vishwaroopam case’, however, the Madras High Court quashed another colonial practice of theatre-productions having to obtain police clearance before staging them. The High Court is also seized of another matter, though only an extension of the ’rights issues’ involved in the case, for a journalist summoned by the State Assembly on a charge of breach of privilege, to be represented by a lawyer.

The journalist, ’Nakkeeran’ Gopal, had on an earlier occasion obtained a landmark verdict from the Supreme Court, in a matter pertaining to ’freedom of expression’. Prior to that in the Eighties, another Tamil magazine, ’Ananda Vikatan’, and its Editor, S Balasubramanian, had obtained a favourable Supreme Court verdict after the latter having undergone a day’s imprisonment at the behest of the State Assembly, after he had refused to apologise for carrying a cartoon, which sought to equate legislators to donkeys. For all the current noise and protest, however, in the mid-Fifties, the State Government had amended the CrPC to strangle ’freedom of the Press’ under the Congress rule.

Through the Seventies, attacks on the Press used to be the order of the day. It took the shape of the shape of the State slapping defamation cases on newspapers, including national and language dailies published from outside the State, which at one stage in the first half of the Nineties had crossed the 500-mark, in the Nineties. In the first decade of the new century, ’The Hindu’ had its offices in Chennai searched by police after the State Assembly had hauled up the Editors for breach of privilege of the State Assembly. Such trends have continued since.

Were they all an expression of the State’s continuing impatience and irritability with free criticism, independent of the political dispensation - or, were necessitated by a continual and unstoppable urge to maintain law and order, whatever the political, and at times, legal cost?

Panel to study certification issues

Without much loss of time, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has since set up an eight-member panel to study the anomalies that have crept into the process of film-certification. The existing scheme provides for the appointment of a ’Review Committee’ from within the Censor Board, if the initial certification did not satisfy the producer in particular.

More often than not, this is the route that is often taken by the aggrieved party, but was not followed in the recent case in Tamil Nadu. The fact that a particular section of the community in the State alone had problems with the movie concerned whereas their brethren elsewhere in the country, and with equal, if not stronger beliefs, elsewhere across the world, did not have problems cannot be lost sight of, either. Yet, the reservations in Tamil Nadu were a reality, and could have broken out into street-violence. Yet, there is no denying excessive politics and controversies in nominations to the certification committees almost since Independence, starting with its chairperson from time to time. It is one thing for politics to play a limited role if the chosen members are otherwise qualified. It is another matter, if political ideology/loyalty alone becomes the sole criterion for choice.

There is also the question of ’qualification’ for members. Fair enough, they represent a cross-section of the local community. Yet, as the current discourse and distortions have shown, a decision may soon need to be taken if intellect and erudition, or political astuteness and issues-consciousness, could be substitutes for common sense based on ground realities. The trickle-down effect of democracy has thrown up issues and constituencies (both social and political).

Striking a fine balance

The aspirations and concerns of these constituencies need to be addressed in ways that they understand and appreciate, if the Nehruvian dictum of ’Unity in diversity’ has to be continued to be preserved in practice. For democracy to mature further, concepts such as ’freedom of expression’, of the Press, writers, artistes, intellectuals and scholars have to be protected, too. Yet, ’IT era democracy’ comes with rights and responsibilities for the individual and the State, which were non-existent at the time of the founding fathers.

Going along side this, and at times beyond, are issues of ’cultural policing’, where no section of the community, delineated by religion, ideology or class and caste can escape the blame - whatever the peripheral nature of their social and political existence. This has remained a continuing concern as much for the society as for the State. Where it involves artistes and/or cultural performances, as is now the case with the ’all-woman band’ in Jammu and Kashmir, or M F Hussain, the issue itself has remained vociferous, as is the case with other peripheral groups and their causes, too.

A fine balance has to be struck. Considering that a host of issues have cropped up across the country around the same time, including the ’Ashish Nandy row’ in western India in Jaipur, and the ’Salman Rushdie-Deepa Mehta row’ in eastern Kolkatta, preceded by even more famous cases as that of legendary painter M F Hussain in Mumbai, it is time the Centre took the initiating in delineating the line between where my hand should stop and where your nose should begin.

Law, order and more

The current discourse, which after a time assumed national proportions, did not have much of ’nationalist overtones’ that the subject very much could have propelled. Yet future possibilities under near-similar conditions, whoever the parties involved, cannot be over-looked. Governments at the Centre and/or the States cannot avoid legitimate, ’I-said-so’ kind of criticism if there is a repeat and worse. It is not about politics and elections, but about maintaining social harmony, whether the issue involves different communities or different sections of the same community.

The definition of ’community’ is this context should not be reduced to religion, region or castes. ’Team Anna’ , the ’Delhi rape’ protests, Sangur, Koodamkulam, land reforms protests and others have exposed the nebulous and inter-changeable character of ’communities’ that get agitated over issues, and across the board. All of these have also formed the core of films, plays and books, both serious and commercialised, in the past.

’Awareness’ of the kind that is now being witnessed across the country could create newer constituencies - both electoral, and non-electoral, too -- that were not known to the past. This throws up issues for the policy-maker and enforcer alike. Here, the term ’awareness’ itself becomes relative, as the ’creator’ could claim to be at a higher level than much of the rest of the society, ridden with layers of constituencies.

Such a ’creator’ may be unable to predict public mood and mood-swings, natural or evocative, even where is not unwilling. Such a premise also overlooks the need and possibilities for ’creative freedoms’, which again is coming to be considered as an inherent element of ’fundamental freedoms’, on the intellectual side in particular. The question would then arise as to if compromises have to be made, and if so by whom - or, whom all - how far and how much. The larger question would still remain in context: "When?"

On these larger canvas, answers would have to be found on what could constitute a ’law and order problem’ demanding - and justifying, post facto - State intervention, and what could discourage the State from doing so, if conscious about a post-dated condemnation of a carefully taken decision of the kind, by the higher judiciary, for instance. Be it the anti-Vishwaroopam protests, which were really not a protest, as was made out to be, or the ’anti-rape protests’ on Delhi’s Rajpath, would adequate justification have been found if miscreants had hijacked the agenda, and turned them unimaginably violent?

Dynamic mechanism

Considering that films and books, creator’s freedom and that of the Press are not existential questions for which ready answers could still be found, whether enforceable or not, the answers too have to be in the realm of pragmatism. These are esoteric areas, where any discourse of any kind could trigger more discourse, and none else.

Maybe, thus, a time has come for the State, polity and society to introspect constantly, to strike the right balance and at the right, with an inherent willingness and in-built systemic ability to revisit, review and revise existing schemes and systems, laws and rules, to reflect the reality of the present, yet drawing deep from the decisive and distinctive past.

It is unclear if the proposed panel of the I&B Ministry could still be mandated to discuss such vagaries of the times, and arrive at dynamic mechanisms for constant improvisation without losing sight of the unavoidable balance in perceptions. If not, a larger panel may have to look into multifarious aspects of the existing situation, which has not been taken note of adequately, and the emerging developments, which cannot be treated with equal callousness, be it by the State, the polity or the society.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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