“Freedom of expression is for all”, the Madras High Court dismissed the “ban” plea of the Tamil film “Mersal”, which has been besmirched in controversies. The Tamil Nadu BJP unit claimed that the film takes a dig at the Central government’s policies like GST, demonetisation and digital India and shows in poor light.
The interesting part of the verdict is that it just not junked the petition, but reportedly said that if the petitioner was really concerned about the public and society then he would have tackled issues such as untouchability and women’s safety. Instead the petitioner chose to go after a movie.
Both the films and Press, considered as great media of communication with the people, enjoy the same status and right as far as constitutional freedom relating to expression of ideas and messages are concerned. When the Central Board of Film Certification had given its clearance to the movie, the objection raised is irrational.
Remember, two films “Aandhi” and “Kissa Kursi Kaa” were perceived to be about the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In fact, the latter turned out to be the most controversial film ever made in the history of Indian cinema. The film was accused of acerbic criticism of the functioning of the Central government under Mrs. Gandhi.
Deepa Mehta’s ‘Water’ (2005), which dealt with the plight of the widows in Varanasi, was banned, but went on to win international acclaim. Many films like “Vishwaroopam”, and the current “Mersal” had to fight (political) censorship.
Aseem Trivedi, renowned political cartoonist and activist, was sent to jail on the grounds of sedition for publishing a series of cartoons highlighting corruption in India, though he was later released amid wave of protest.
Many instances can be cited where films got into trouble dealing with stimulating themes. It is public knowledge that film industry had a tough time during Emergency, and was put under intense pressure to aid the Government’s propaganda campaigns. Film-makers and artists who refused to cooperate were blacklisted, and films were denied clearance.
So long one makes stereotype movies with only songs and dance sequences and follow common formulas of entertainment, there is no harm. But the moment one dares to speak against the state articulating his opinion on any sensitive or serious matter through films or documentaries, not palatable to certain powerholders, he lands into trouble zone.
These incidents represent the arbitrary nature of the authorities, various groups or political parties. The film-makers had to depend either upon the whims of those elements or to fight legal battles; still many films never saw the light of the day.
The state cannot prevent open debates, however hateful to its policies. The public can form his/her opinion by any legitimate means. The director/producer has a right to project his own messages which others may not approve of.
Right to acquire information
The freedom of speech and expression includes right to acquire information and to disseminate to public at large, and the people have a right to be informed of the developments that takes place in a democratic process. When a movie is restrained, the “right of the viewers” is also offended. On the other hand, it may actually give wrong message to the public through indirect interpretation.
If a speaker cannot express a view, then hearer cannot receive information. General public may be devoid of proper education, but not always of common sense. While entertaining, movies also mirror the society at large.
Despite the fact that the Constitution of India does not explicitly mention motion pictures as medium of speech and expression, they have been so accepted through various court decisions. The higher courts in India have consistently guarded freedom of speech and expression, and have evinced judicial optimism.
If freedom of speech applied only to non-controversial expression, then it wouldn’t need to be protected in the Constitution. The fundamental right was intended to cover speech that some people would find controversial, disturbing or even outright offensive. Censor Board should have greater autonomy, so that they don’t become puppets in the hands of vested interests.
Make no mistake, in any democratic society, there are bound to be divergent views. According to Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, one of the reasons for democracy to survive in India is “the ability of Indians to accept diverse thoughts and philosophies, cultures and lifestyles within their fold.” Creating awareness in proper light is first step towards that realisation. “Mersal” has just done that.
(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)