Theatre artistes and playwrights welcomed the Madras High Court’s verdict on Wednesday striking down a law that required police permission for staging plays.
Terming the decision a “huge victory for freedom of expression”, playwright Gnani, petitioner in the case, said: “The Act came into effect in 1954. It is as old as I am, and had been stifling expression for about 60 years.”
Recalling long waits for police permission and unreasonable cuts in the script, he said: “When other performing arts such as music or dance do not require artistes to obtain a licence, it is not fair that they discriminate against theatre alone.”
Members of the theatre fraternity observed that it was always a hassle to obtain permission. The licence would arrive hours, or in some cases, minutes before the show, putting tremendous pressure on the artistes. “We have had to begin the play late because of this unreasonable requirement,” said Gnani. According to him, the Act came into existence at a time when M.R. Radha’s plays were seen as a threat to the then Congress rule in the State. “Neither of the Dravidian parties that have been in power since did anything about it, as they found the Act convenient.”
Theatre groups that sought to perform in sabhas and public spaces like the museum theatre in Egmore were most affected. Those who performed at venues such as Alliance Française, Max Mueller Bhavan or British Council were protected by diplomatic immunity, and did not require permission, according to N. Muthuswamy, founder-director , Koothu-p-pattarai. “The provisions were utterly meaningless and it is heartening to know they are not valid anymore,” he said.
Welcoming Wednesday’s verdict, P.C. Ramakrishna of Madras Players said there was no better judge than the audience. “I am against any kind of censorship. While the judgement is certainly welcome, it casts more responsibility on playwrights and artistes to be cautious and ensure there is no anti-national sentiment or content that might fan communal disharmony or political unrest,” he said.
S. Ve. Shekher of Natakhapriya said: “This is a great relief and we must thank Gnani for his efforts. The Act interfered with out creative spirit and spontaneity.”
On whether the Act was challenged by artistes earlier, Gnani said: “I don’t think so. In the 1980s, when Komal Swaminathan was staging his ‘Thanneer Thanneer’, the police cut out some portions in his script. But then, he agreed to the cuts. He did not want to challenge the Act as he had already given a commitment to about 30 sabhas.”