Three cinemas relent after protest by Sri Lankan Tamil groups

Faced with protests and threats of disruption by Sri Lankan Tamil groups, three major cinema companies in the U.K. have decided not to screen Madras Café in their theatres. The political action thriller directed by Shoojit Sircar — and set in the background of the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1990s — was to have opened in the U.K. on August 28, 2013 in theatres owned by Cineworld, Odeon and Vue.

By August 24, protests began outside the head office of these theatres, organised by Sri Lankan Tamil groups led by the Tamil Youth Organisation (U.K.). Carrying placards that said, “Inciting violence is not entertainment,” “Ban Madras Café”, “Ban hate speech”, its members shouted slogans and burnt copies of the film’s posters.

Online campaign

The anti-Madras Café campaign went on the Facebook page of the Tamil Youth Organisation. An online campaign called on Tamils to sign a petition against the film, and to telephone theatres to protest the screenings.

When the cinemas complied with this demand, exultant messages appeared on the page.

Not only did they cave in, the theatres have been surprisingly circumspect in commenting on their decision.

A senior executive from Odeon, in response to a question from The Hindu, merely said her company “does not wish to cause any offence to any local community groups and hence took the decision.”

A Cineworld spokesperson was equally guarded. “Our policy is to show a wide range of films to different audiences. However, following customer feedback and after working with the film distributors, we have decided not to show Madras Café.”

15+ rating

The British Board of Film Certification had cleared the film, giving it a 15+ rating because of some violent scenes.

“We have no say in the matter of cancellation of a screening,” said a BBFC spokesperson. “That depends upon the theatre or the local council concerned that gives the licence to the cinema.”

The Public Order Act 1986 could have been invoked by the BBFC to stop the film if it was “threatening, abusive or insulting”, or if the intention of the film was to “stir up racial hatred.” Madras Café cleared every hurdle.

Not only did sectional pressure impose an effective ban on the film, the whole issue sank like a stone after that, with not a single South Asian group contesting it.

“It is hard to believe that we are living in a first world country,” said a senior media industry executive who did not want to be named.

“A group of people created a ruckus in front of Cineworld’s offices, and the film is withdrawn! And neither does the U.K. government nor the Indian High Commission intervene.”

Groups well organised

Conversations with South Asian activists suggest that they did not want to get involved because they do not wish to mess with the pro-LTTE Tamil groups, which are well organised and militant.

A leading human rights activist based in London, who too did not want to be named, said: “The pro-LTTE groups here are powerful, their sympathisers are many, and they are very well-funded. And they have been violent with their critics, especially in Europe.”