The ban on Vishwaroopam is just the tip of the iceberg of a growing trend in India, where several groups have raised objections to films. Are we becoming overtly sensitive? Or does this herald a new era of a heady mix of politics, religion and moral police where filmmakers are arm-twisted to drive home a point?
Kamal Haasan, who has dedicated his entire life to cinema, is moving heaven and earth to ensure that his latest film, Vishwaroopam, gets released in Tamil Nadu. It came as a rude shock to not only him but to the entire film fraternity when the film was banned, albeit temporarily, by the Tamil Nadu government based on objections raised by several Muslim groups. A shocked Kamal Haasan, in his letter to the media, termed it as ‘cultural terrorism’ which has to end. He has a valid point. If this is the treatment meted out to one of the greatest actors in Indian cinema, imagine the plight of scores of other filmmakers, actors and writers who have or will have to face the wrath of a section of the public for various reasons. Have we become overtly sensitive as a society or are we caught in the middle of a war between freedom of expression and being politically correct?
A long time ago, filmmakers like K Balachander explored themes which, going by the situation prevailing today, would seem outrageous. Most of his films went on to become cult favourites for movie aficionados. Considering we are in the 21st century, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect people to talk about religion, race, caste, politics and homosexuality among other issues with a little more wisdom? It certainly doesn’t seem so. At least, not yet in Telugu or Tamil cinema. “Back in 1972, Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha and Mehmood acted in a film titled Bombay to Goa. It was a hilarious film where people from different backgrounds and regions were ridiculed. I don’t know how we would react if the same film released today. We have become overtly sensitive and even filmmakers don’t want to touch themes or issues which might invite trouble. It’s a result of the fear psychosis fostered by politicians to promote their vested interests over the years,” singer Anuj Gurwara says.
Historically, Telugu films have rarely been banned, although objectionable scenes were censored ahead of the film’s release. “Raithu Bidda, which was made in 1939, was banned by the British government, but post-Independence, we haven’t had films which were banned altogether, because films were largely within the framework of what was acceptable in the society. In fact, Cameraman Ganga Tho Rambabu is the first Telugu film to be censored once again after its release due to the objections raised by Telangana activists,” film historian Harikrishna Mamidi said, adding, “In the past, filmmakers used to ignore objections raised by a certain section of the society because people accepted the films. Unless there’s an overwhelming outrage over certain scenes or portrayal of people from a specific community or region, no one really cared.”
There’s also another interested trend which gives us a glimpse of how the government chooses to react every time there’s a controversy. Religion is often the trump card which catches everyone’s attention. Women organisations have been protesting for decades against the objectification of women in cinema, but the issue is almost always brushed aside; however, the moment religious groups get involved, the way the government deals with the issue changes completely. Vote-bank politics is the order of the day.
So what happens to the filmmakers and writers who want to make films on touchy issues? Is the fear of backlash so overwhelming that they decide to play safe? “Day by day, we are losing freedom of expression. The moment we begin considering who might get offended by a particular scene or dialogue, it’s difficult to even write. Even the government is trying to please certain sections of the society for power and in turn, they are hurting many more,” writer Kona Venkat said.
It’s not that films haven’t genuinely hurt the sentiments of the audience, but that’s purely subjective. After all, it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to think alike. “Some people might have got offended with certain scenes in Cameraman Ganga Tho Rambabu or Dhenikaina Ready, but the issues were blown out of proportion and 99% of the time, such protests are politically motivated,” Venkat added. Amidst all this chaos, the censor board has become the battleground for filmmakers who vouch for freedom of expression and the other side which expects the censor board to cut every possible scene or dialogue which might hurt their sentiments. A censor board official, on the condition of anonymity, said, “We can’t really judge what might be considered outrageous. Films with more than two or three fight sequences get ‘A’ certificate, but kids these days watch far more violence and gore on TV. In the past, people never raised objections over films like Bombay or Khadgam, but now, they have a problem with films like Dhenikaina Ready. It’s almost as if some groups have a personal vendetta against filmmakers. There are norms which we adhere to, but it’s not practical to appease the sentiments of each and every person.”
Tammareddy Bharadwaj, the president of AP Film Chamber of Commerce, said, “It has become a fashion to protest for everything and no one knows when and why people want to protest against what’s shown in films. Sometimes, there’s absolutely no reason behind these protests. The censor board exists for a reason and its duty is to protect the interest of the public. Once a film is certified by the censor board, it’s unfair to impose further restrictions on a film’s release or call for a ban. It’s almost as if some people want to get some mileage by protesting against films.”
Will the government wake up to protect the freedom of expression of writers and filmmakers or will it continue to bow to protesters for reasons best known to political and religious groups? Only time will tell, but we sincerely wish this fear factor ends soon. Let ideas thrive. Not fear.
Films which could have been banned, but weren’t
1. Religion: Bombay, Khadgam
2. Homosexuality: My Brother Nikhil, I Am, Bombay Boys
3. Caste: Saptapadi, 1940 Lo Oka Gramam
4. Terrorism: Roja, Dil Se
5. Politics: Iruvar, Rajneeti, Rang De Basanti
6. Regionalism: Gulaal
7. Spoof: Tamizh Padam
8. Reservations: Aarakshan
9. Erotica: Rathinirvedam
10. Communalism: Parzania, Firaaq
About the Author (Author Profile)
Hemanth writes primarily about Telugu cinema, although he finds inspiration from the works of filmmakers like Woody Allen. Apart from writing, he spends most of his time on Twitter discussing about cinema, travel and life in Hyderabad.