The Sunday Story Just because you came around chanting names and offered flowers to the stone, would it become a god,” the protagonist of the film Parasakthi asks, mocking the audiences in 1952.
Bitter fights over films, belittling the film certification board that permitted their screening and street battles over ‘hurt religious-sentiments’ are not new to the Tamil public. Radical films challenging entrenched religious ideas and caste divisions have been in circulation since the late 1940s. They have even helped bring to power the Dravidian party that promoted atheism through various art forms.
Against this background, the recent controversy surrounding Vishwaroopam deflates the innocent thought that societies progress with time. The upside, if there is any, is that this episode could turn into another instructive example to show how to live with the depiction of unconventional views.
“Just because you came around chanting names and offered flowers to the stone, would it become a god,” the protagonist of the film
asks, mocking the audiences in 1952. If that was not unsettling enough, a few scenes later, he appeared to chide a temple priest and attack him with a sickle in front of the sanctum. When the protagonist declared, standing in front of the image of the goddess, “Parasakthi [the goddess] would not speak, she is a stone,” it created a stir. Even though, as studies show (M.S.S. Pandian, 1991), the word ‘stone’ was removed from the sound track, the message was clear and the impact viral.
This film evoked strong responses from a few. They severely criticised the censor board for clearing the film and petitioned the Congress government, which was in power then, to ban it. In response, the government attempted to get a group of select people to watch the film and give a verdict. However, it soon dropped this move and appealed to the censor board for a review. The fact remains that the movie was screened, enjoyed remarkable reception and turned out to be a landmark. M. Karunanidhi, the dialogue writer who later became the Chief Minister, and ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan, the actor who played the protagonist, became sought-after stars.
More such films followed, and the ripples never stopped. Sorgavasal, written by C.N. Annadurai and released in 1954, made fun of religious heads and gently rebuked the idea of gifting cows to seek divine good will. Vested groups predictably opposed such films and plays, which were equally popular, since they allegedly hurt their religious sentiments. When the State government tried to use this as a reason to intervene, the move was challenged, mocked and defied. For instance, M.N. Kurup, a member of the Legislative Assembly, ridiculed the government when it attempted to modify the Dramatic Performances Act in 1954 to censor the plays. The State did not have the ‘thermometer to measure the religious feeling of a man when he saw a performance,’ he said. When the government persisted with censorship, actors such as M.R. Radha staged prohibited plays either by smartly changing the title or in open defiance.
If the Hindus found the above films hurting their sentiments, the Muslims objected to movies such as Mohammad-bin-Tughlaq, a political satire released in 1971, for hurting their feelings. ‘Cho’ Ramaswami, the director-actor, described the report on the protest as ‘sheer nonsense’ and alleged that ‘the Muslims are asked to be offended by the DMK [the party in power].’ The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ‘was taken aback by the large volume of support’ and ‘thought it was wise to allow the film than ban it.’
Films that turned their attention on state complacency and entrenched political positions too were greeted with a call for ban. In the 1980s, films such as Thaneer Thaneer and Sivappu Malli that portrayed the suffering of marginal groups were perceived to ‘advance the policy of naxalism and violence’ and as ‘against the Gandhian principle.’ To the displeasure of the protesters and the State, the films were exhibited and they did well.
P. Jeevanandam, the Communist party member, cautioning against censoring in 1954, said it was against the progressive tradition of the country and “vested interests would always set up the plea of their feelings being wounded by anything new.” His prescient comments have come true yet again.
The way forward, as Tamil film history has often shown, is to allow uninhibited circulation of ideas since it always turns out to be a better form of public engagement.
Illustration: Deepak Harichandan