In a significant intervention, the First Bench of the Madras High Court directed the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) on May 18 “to take all possible steps to release at an early date the Tamil version of its English film, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, released in 1998. The Bench comprising Acting Chief Justice Elipe Dharma and Justice K.K. Sasidharan also directed the State Government to “decide the issue regarding tax concession as claimed by the distributor of the Tamil version” within two weeks. Disposing of a writ petition filed by a lawyer, S. Sathia Chandran, under Article 226 of the Constitution, the judges further directed the NFDC, a Government of India enterprise based in New Delhi, to release the film “as expeditiously as possible and in any case, within a period of four weeks” from the date of receipt of the order. Article 226 of the Constitution relates to the power of High Courts to issue certain writs. Clause 2 states: “The power conferred by clause (1) to issue directions, orders or writs to any Government, authority or person may also be exercised by any High Court exercising jurisdiction in relation to the territories within which the cause of action, wholly or in part, arises for the exercise of such power, notwithstanding that the seat of such Government or authority or the residence of such person is not within those territories.)”
The orders, when acted upon, will hopefully bring to an end the long wait of film-lovers in Tamil Nadu, particularly those working in the fields of human rights and social justice, besides large sections of the general public, including Dalits, to watch the acclaimed film. Directed by paediatrician-turned-filmmaker Jabbar Patel, the film was released 12 years ago to mark the birth centenary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), one of the architects of the Constitution of India. The film was produced at a cost of Rs. 7.75 crore with funds provided by the central and Maharashtra governments in 1991.
Veteran Malayalam actor Mammootty's stellar performance as Dr Ambedkar brought him the National Award for acting in 1999. The film also bagged awards in the categories of Best English Film and Best Art Direction. On the choice of Mammootty, Jabbar Patel said in an interview to The Week: “I searched all over the world for somebody who would be able to perform and look like Ambedkar. I chose Mammootty after screening hundreds of actors in India and abroad.”
The feature film received detailed reviews and critical acclaim in the media across the country. Several mainstream newspapers and magazines published insightful interviews with Jabbar Patel on his highly professional filming of Dr Ambedkar's life and times. “In fact, the talent that has gone into the film is what makes it well-researched and slickly-produced,” said a reviewer. The scriptwriters included a former Editor of Free Press Journal, Aru Sadhu; and an Ambedkar-scholar, Y.D. Phadke, reviewed the script for authenticity.
Although the producers said the film was dubbed in nine languages, the Tamil version is yet to see the light of day. Tamil Nadu's Information and Publicity Minister Parithi Ilamvazhuthi told the State Assembly on May 7, 2007, that the State Government had granted Rs. 10 lakh to dub the Ambedkar film in Tamil. He also recalled that the State Government provided a grant of Rs. 99 lakh to make a film on the champion of the social justice, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, and ordered tax exemption for screening the film. He promised that the film would be released “soon.” Recently, advocates and students of Madurai Law College and social activists staged a demonstration in Madurai demanding the release of the film. They raised slogans against governments at the Centre and in the States for not arranging the release of the film even a decade after its making. They attributed motives to the authorities. Nothing much seems to have happened. The petitioner said in his affidavit: “It is an undisputed fact that if the film on Dr. Ambedkar is released in Tamil, it would certainly awaken and enlighten the toiling masses, the Dalits, towards working for an egalitarian and truly casteless society, which is the ideal of the Constitution, as dreamt of by Dr. Ambedkar.”
It is not as if Tamil Nadu is the only State in which there was no public screening of the film in the regional language. Even in States where the film was exhibited, the authorities were reportedly not very keen to take it to larger audiences. The indifference of the authorities, some Dalit activists said, was aligned with the reluctance of “upper caste” owners of cinema houses in several places.
Its screening and questions
The inordinate delay in the attempt to get the film screened in Tamil Nadu raises some questions. How was it that either the government enterprise, NFDC, or central and State government authorities did not take any serious initiative for such a long period to provide access to the film for the people of a progressive State, which accounts for the third largest presence of Dalits in the country, for whose rights Dr Ambedkar fought all his life and for whom it could have been an inspiring experience? How could the leaders of the principal political parties, who are legitimately proud of their long, uncompromising struggles against caste-based discrimination and their continuous fight for social justice, have been so slow in taking to the people the message of the one who dedicated his life, his outstanding intellect, and his many gifts to the concept of affirmative discrimination and facilitated the extension of reservation benefits to more sections of the socially and educationally backward people, on an appropriate occasion? One possible explanation from the authorities for this lapse could be that when the film was launched in the late 1990s at the national level, some regions in Tamil Nadu were badly affected by caste-related violence and mindless killings and so it was not the right time to screen the film. But then, even assuming that such fears were not ill founded, it should be noted that the situation in the State took a turn for the better from mid-2000. The screening of the film could not have been much of a problem. In any case, a national leader like Dr Ambedkar, whose contribution to the Indian polity and democracy was second to none and whose influence today is perhaps greater than at any point during his lifetime, deserves better.
Boasting a film industry that produces about 120 films every year and generates an annual revenue of not less than Rs. 800 crore and more than 1,800 cinema houses, Tamil Nadu could hardly throw the blame on any resource crunch for the delay in arranging for the public screening of a historic film of undisputed educational value. The authorities would do well to expedite the process of giving a tax waiver to the film and facilitate its screening for the benefit of all sections of the people, especially the youth and students. The role of the media in monitoring and indeed ensuring such socially beneficial outcomes is important.