Filmdom's Friday 'take offence' game

BY Geeta Seshu| IN Censorship | 13/08/2013
Come Friday and a big release and there will be another actor lurking in the shadows: the offence-taker. At least four films in the last two weeks have run into some trouble or the other, over dialogues or song lyrics.
GEETA SESHU says the state should protect filmgoers from threats of violence.

In the last few weeks alone, Hindi cinema’s Chennai Express saw some objections and managed to weather them, but Thalaivaa didn’t get lucky, leaving the Tamil film awaiting a release in the Chennai region, even though it was released elsewhere. Actor John Abraham’s production, Madras Café ran into trouble with a Tamil Nadu based organization for allegedly portraying the LTTE in a bad light and the biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag fell afoul of a Punjab based organization for a song!

Of course, the sceptics have begun grumbling that all these are just publicity stunts and the offence-takers may well ‘settle’ for a tidy sum to withdraw the objections, but how do they even get away with this offence-game? For, the films are cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and obtain a certificate for release.

Now, successive chairpersons have continually stated that they are not going to ‘censor’ films, merely ensure that they do follow the norms (or the reasonable restrictions, under Art 19 of the Constitution - the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence) laid down for exhibition. So the films go through a process of screening before committees and reviews if necessary, before being awarded a certificate.

When the film is ready for release, the ‘offensive’ action begins and some group or the other wakes up to alleged distortions in the depiction of that group. The threat of violence is ever present and can force frightened theatre owners to back off from releasing the films.

But surely that’s where the state should come in? What are our law-enforcers there for anyway, but to protect film-goers and provide them with necessary security so they can actually go to the theatres and see the films of their choice? Instead, successive governments have conveniently conflated the perceived threat to law and order as something that affects public order, though the Supreme Court has given a number of judgements making a distinction between the two.

Ensuring law and order can be done, if there is enough political will. Remember how the Maharashtra government threw its might behind Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan and thwarted the Shiv Sena’s attempts to disrupt the release of the actor’s production, ‘My name is Khan’ in 2010?

The sad truth is that political will tends to wax and wane in the most opportunistic manner. This unreliable standard can let down a Rahul Dholakia (Parzania) and Aamir Khan (Fanaa) in Gujarat, delay the release of a Kamalhaasan starrer (Vishwaroopam), the Mani Ratnam directed Kadal or ban Sohan Roy’s Dam 999 in Tamil Nadu or even the afore-mentioned Maharashtra government which refuses to let bookshops stock James Laine’s book on Shivaji, despite the lifting of a ban on it by the Supreme Court.

And if the film-makers can get their political offence-takers sorted out, there’s always the tax issue to be sorted out! Thalaivaa (again) has run into trouble because the Tamil Nadu government’s Commercial Taxes Department Review Committee has refused tax exemption since it has ‘over 400 English words in the dialogues, the hero takes the law into his own hands and for the excessive depiction of violence’.

It’s a wonder the film-makers don’t announce ‘pack up’ !