The rise and rise of the Censor Senas!!!

Acclaimed film maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali has again been engulfed in a controversy. This time around his soon to be released magnum opus Padmavati, which has enraged a section of people in North India –   Rajputs in particular, who have threatened to behead Bhansali, maim the lead actress Deepika Padukone apart from stopping the screening of his film. A few years ago, Bhansali had faced the ire of some religious groups over his film Ram Leela over the title. Bhansali then rechristened the film to Goliyon Ka Raasleela – Ram Leela and managed to get away. And his last movie, Bajirao Mastaani met with similar pre-release blues when activists from Maharashtra claimed that Bhansali was distorting history in the name of creative freedom. The film was finally released after Bhansali claimed that it was a fictional work. So, with all his rich experience in handling similar crisis in the past, hopefully Bhansali will get over this as well, even as I hear that the producers have deferred the release of the film.

Bhansali is not alone in this. In the past, quite a few filmmakers have gone through the harrowing experience of their film being threatened to be stopped. And the reasons varied from “hurting religious sentiments” to ‘distorting history” to “disrespecting past leaders” to “using Pakistani actors” to “hurting a particular community” to “against Indian ethos” and so on. Almost every month we have a film which gets caught in such a controversy at the time of release. Conspiracy theories abound that filmmakers often play with fire to stoke these controversies as a means to promote the film. In these days, where a film’s financial fate is decided on the opening it gets, one cannot dismiss these theories. Controversies help to “hashtag” the film for a few days and help to raise interest levels!  And then the producer gets into a “compromise” with the fringe groups in return for a safe passage for the film! And one cannot blame the producer for the same as few million bucks ride on each of these films!

These days, some fringe group or other raises a stink even before they have seen the film suspecting to hurt their sentiments just by going by the trailer and promotions. In the case of Padmavati, Bhansali got into trouble just as he commenced shooting when a group called the Karni Sena vandalized the sets at Kolhapur earlier this year. What perplexes one is how could they conclude that the film is going to hurt their sentiments even before the shooting commenced? Did they get to see the script? The Karni Sena chief admitted recently that though he not seen the film he had a “hunch” of what the film is about. Well, if only if we can find a way of utilizing their skills of prescience better like in weather forecasting,… we may be better off!

In effect, what we see is fringe groups taking the mantle of the censor board and becoming “Censor Senas”! Karni Sena, which was originally formed for securing the interests of Rajputs against discrimination, seems concerned only about the image of their clan as depicted in films as can be seen the last few times they shot into limelight – like before release of Ashotosh Gowarikar’s Jodha Akbar! During the release of Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, I had opined that filmmakers may have to get their films certified by fringe groups on whom the film is about!  But it appears that not just fringe groups, but filmmakers may have to seek approval even from news anchors as we saw yesterday when the producers of Padmavati had an exclusive screening of the film for a few news anchors! So, Arnab Goswami apart from being the Prime time Prosecutor cum Defense lawyer and Judge now has turned a “Super” Censor Board member as well!  As things stand, in India, film makers may have to show their script, may be add a few scenes to glorify and take blessings from the “Censor Senas” and then commence shooting!

In all this, what comes under very close scrutiny is what the Govt. of the day does or doesn’t do in such circumstances. In this, no party has covered itself with glory. While our constitution has enshrined the Freedom of Speech and Expression as a fundamental right, as far as political parties are concerned it often is secondary. What is more important to them is the political impact of exercising that freedom. And they take umbrage under “Whataboutery” of such incidents of the past! I am certain that if the ruling govt. makes its intent clear right from the beginning that once the Censor Board clears the film for release they will ensure that they will provide the necessary support, the threats of stopping the film will lose its sting. But, usually it’s not the case. The party panders to the community overtly or covertly as per their electoral clout and plays to the gallery. Just like what the BJP government in Rajastan has done in the case of Padmavati or what the AIADMK Govt. did for Vishwaroopam. Then it is left to the filmmaker to broker peace with the protesters either financially or by tweaking content. Either way it doesn’t augur well for our country which often talks of promoting its soft power!

“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” is a quote often made in the context of freedom of expression. So, the argument is that no creator has any business of hurting sentiments of others and hence they should stay off topics like religion, community, biography of leaders, depiction of history, Indian culture,…,… If that is the case I am afraid that the only way out for filmmakers is to become a Rohit Shetty and churn out capers of the Golmaal variety!

On a serious note, while in a country where people are emotional and argumentative, aspects of religion occupy an important space in one’s lives, I do agree that it is important to respect the sentiments of others. However, any act of disrespect or alleged disrespect cannot be judged by people themselves. It was our former PM Vajpayee who once said “An answer to a book is another book!” in the context of banning a book! Similarly the answer to a film one doesn’t like, is to stay away from the film and not threaten to stop the film or vandalise the theatres!

Ergo, I feel that the role of the Censor Board becomes crucial while certification. As per its charter, the CBFC (Central Board for Film Certification) can refuse to certify a film on many accounts including some of the concerns espoused like disturbing communal harmony,… Once the film is certified for release by the Censor Board in its due wisdom, it should become the responsibility of the State to support the filmmaker with its release, if the situation warrants. With such an onerous responsibility, it also becomes crucial for the Board to have the right people as its members.  Here again, instead of treating Censor Board as a place for rewarding loyalists, considering the sensitivity involved, the Government of the day should pack this with eminent people from different walks of life who can carry out the job without prejudice.  At a time when as a country we are in the throes of “Arriving” in the world scene, we need minimum distractions.  Threat to Freedom of Expression must not be one. Time for the Censor Senas to Rest in Peace!

Postscript: This is my 150th post! A big thank you for reading, liking, commenting and at times sharing my posts! Your encouragement has always been a big driver!

Pic Courtesy: Amul 

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The ‘Dwarfing’ of #Vishwaroopam!!!

Events in the last 2 weeks proved beyond doubt that in this Kalyug, even a Vishwaroopam can be dwarfed and how!  Kamal Haasan, the man who dwarfed himself 2 decades ago and played the role of a midget so well in the film Apoorva Sagotharargal (Appu Raja) wouldn’t have asked for this.  This time his Magnum opus ‘Vishwaroopam’ was not allowed to show itself initially for 2 weeks in Tamil Nadu in anticipation of communal trouble – as a precaution. When have you seen any Govt. being so pro-active? What followed in the next few days dwarfed even a tense Indo-Pak one day game in terms of suspense, drama, turn of events and action.  Ban, No Ban, Re Ban, Un ban, …,.. after a while it was beginning to get banal!

On the 3rd of Feb as I am writing this piece, it looks like ‘Vishwaroopam’ will see the light of the day in TN after Kamal agreed for the film to be edited by some super editors. I hope he gives them their due in the title credits!  From here on, I see this setting a rather dangerous precedent.  Film makers must now plan for showing their movies before hand to different fringe groups and take their blessings even after they have the censor board clearance in hand if they show something mirroring the society. Not that this is new (if you recall Maniratnam and Ram Gopal Verma showing their movies –“Bombay” and “Sarkar” to Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray and taking his nod before hitting the theatres)  But this is certainly new for Chennai or other parts of India. There will be some group or other in our highly heterogeneous, populous and emotional country which will have an issue of something or other and threaten to upset the law and order situation.  And imagine what would happen if that group happen to be a vote bank of the ruling party?

I haven’t seen ‘Vishwaroopam’.  From what I’ve heard and read in reviews, it certainly appears that it is not the 1st movie to have dealt with the subject it has.  But it is certainly the 1st to have created such a big ruckus for doing that.  Could it be that Mr.Haasan’s reputation of being a rebel came in the way of any rational discourse?

Even when Kamal was threatening to take the pre-release DTH route to showcase ‘Vishwaroopam’, it was due to this rebellious streak most thought.  However, I for one was convinced that the DTH bogey was a marketing ploy to oversell the film and laugh his way to few banks! Why on earth otherwise one would bet on an alternate channel which had a share of 11% of the revenues and risk the conventional channel which has the lion’s share of revenue (over 70 % )?  As marketers we always feel that pursuing alternate channels of distribution is our birthright whether right or wrong!  So it is perfectly legitimate and smart on the part of the “Vishwa Nayagan” to pursue a new channel in the form of a DTH première for his film to bolster revenues.  But couldn’t resist asking a few questions:

  • Was there a need to pursue that at the risk of your major channel that too for a film where you have admittedly bet all your assets?
  • Would ‘Dell’ sell its laptops to Indian consumer today only through “E-Comm/Online” channel because that’s their global model?
  • If there is no threat to the theatres and it is basically to tap the non theatre going audience – why can’t the DTH première be done after 2 weeks post the release? That audience in any case is not the one to catch first day first shows!
  • Would it not have been better to have ticked off this idea 1st with a less expensive off beat movie where the risks are much lower – and call the theatre owners bluff even if they threaten to boycott?

Considering that Kamal Hassan couldn’t have afforded a boycott for this film the high investments notwithstanding, I was convinced that the DTH posturing was more a clever PR drive to drive many of us directly to theatres as soon as the movie got released.   That ‘Vishwaroopamic opening’ would have helped clear all his debts and ofcourse earned him accolades. With all the visibility in the media and the hype thanks to the DTH story, I thought that Kamal was hitting the bull’s eye.

It was not to be. The hype, hoopla and the reputation of the maker brought in closer scrutiny of the content and insecurities among Muslim groups and more drama followed.   As Kamal set sail to Los Angeles for a global première, his local release got spiked by the Govt. first and then by the courts. That the release couldn’t catch initially the holiday weekend of Pongal and then the longer Republic Day weekend must have been telling on Kamal.  That finally as an artist he had to yield and accept for a few cuts to get the film somehow released in his home state is certainly pragmatic and a commercial compulsion.  But the entire ‘Vishwaroopam’ episode has exposed the politician-business-society nexus in different avatars and is a blow to creative freedom and freedom of expression in the country.  As I mentioned before, I shudder to think what will happen to films which tend to reflect society tomorrow.  I can’t help recall few lines of my all-time favourite poet – Subramania Bharathi in this context:

“Nalladhoar veenai seydhae – adhai
nalangedap puzhudhiyil erivadhundoa

solladi sivasakthi – enaich
chudarmigum arivudan padaiththuvittaay”

“(I) made a noble veena
Would (I) throw it in the garbage?
Answer me oh Goddess
Why create me with a sparkling wisdom?”

P.S: That these lines look like Kamal’s lines addressed to one ‘Amma’ who is considered a Goddess in TN is purely coincidental!!!

cut

Post update :

I posted this piece on 3rd Feb and since then as I feared look at the news flashes emanating :

4th Feb :

Shocking ! #Suriya‘s eagerly awaited #Singam2 , now faces the wrath of a Muslim group!! “Villain in the film a Muslim pirate of Somalia!

#Kadal update – A christian group led by a priest has filed a complaint against the film and demanded a ban on it 4 being “anti-christian”!