It doesn’t behove the State to meddle in fine arts, nor to patronise the hooligans who do
The Indian cinema industry is worth about Rs 200 billion. It produces the maximum number of films in the world. Over 3.6 billion tickets, nearly thrice the population of the country, are sold every year. And yet, this colossal industry can be held to ransom by small, fringe groups whenever it suits them. Bigotry and intolerance of certain sections of the population have always been the bane of Indian cinema. Over the years it has come into its own as a feral activity, immune to law, reason and public decency, in that order. Often, it quickly deteriorates into physical threats and violence. It is encouraged by the ruling ideology of the time. The trigger can be anything: even the simplest of cinematic liberties. The latest incident in the series is Bajrang Dal workers throwing ink on director Prakash Jha in Bhopal and vandalising a film set for his upcoming web series, Ashram 3. They deemed that the web series contained obscene scenes and hurt Hindu sentiments. They even damaged vehicles and beat up crew members. There is no question of a discussion with them about rationality, creativity, freedom of expression, democracy, secular instincts, and so on. It is beyond their remit. It is a base surge of political emotion that they respond to. India has seen similar protests going back years and even decades.
In 2000, Shiv Sena workers destroyed Deepa Mehta’s set for the film, Water, in Varanasi on the vague ground that it was “anti-Hindu”. She packed up from India and finished the film in Sri Lanka instead. Previously, she had borne the brunt of the Shiv Sena about the theme of her film, Fire, with the late Balasaheb Thackeray bristling with misplaced indignation. The protests by a Rajput fan club over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavat in 2017 are well recorded. Their claims were outlandish and naturally untrue. More recently, the BJP and RSS workers forced the cancellation of the shooting of a Malayalam film, Neeyaam Nadhi, in Kerala because they did not like a scene that showed a girl, coming out of a temple, getting attracted to a youth from a different religion. Left to themselves, these so-called protests would have died a natural death but they gain a life of their own because of media publicity and social media outreach. The problem is when the State becomes an actor, too. In the Prakash Jha case, no less than the Home Minister of Madhya Pradesh has issued a diktat saying filmmakers will have to show the script to the local administration for seeking approval for the shoot. That means bureaucrats will now decide what is objectionable and what is not, and the fate of the film shoot will hang on their verdict. If films are to be censored even as they are shot, there will not be any role left for the censor board. Is the State comfortable representing the protesters or obviating the need for protests by its interference?