The Madhya Pradesh High Court’s directive to change the title of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie Ram Leela, is only the latest setback to artistic and creative expression in India. The High Court’s order underlines the urgent need to reconsider the film certification process, and indeed, the archaic Cinematograph Act of 1952. Mr. Bhansali’s offering was cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification, a statutory body entrusted with vetting all aspects of a movie, including its title. If a High Court judge could overrule the CBFC in response to a petition that claimed the title Ram Leela offended religious sentiments, the Board’s mandate is in serious jeopardy. Presumably, neither the judge nor the petitioners had a chance to evaluate the movie ahead of its release. The Madhya Pradesh High Court could have simply issued notice to the movie’s producers while refusing to comment on the petition’s merits, as the Bombay High Court had done. The Delhi High Court had gone further, imposing a fine on an NGO that preferred a similar, vexatious complaint against the movie. The Madhya Pradesh High Court’s order has opened the door for mischievous attempts to curb free speech and rendered the movie vulnerable to attacks elsewhere.
Ram Leela may not have met the fate of movies like Vishwaroopam and Madras Café, banned altogether by the Tamil Nadu government. But in all three cases, film-makers were in no position to contest any violation of their freedoms. The exigency of ensuring a timely release in a competitive market has left them at the mercy of fringe elements who twist the law to meet their ends. Those aggrieved by the CBFC’s decision to clear the title Ram Leela could well have approached the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal. The rationale behind a dedicated certification process is laid to waste if producers are not offered an opportunity to present their case. Summary decisions by courts, as with that issued by the Madhya Pradesh High Court, often come at the cost of due process. The Justice Mukul Mudgal Committee, constituted to formulate a model Cinematograph Act, had recommended that the FCAT’s scope be enlarged so as to make it the primary venue for such litigation. The draft Bill mooted by the Committee suggests that movies be evaluated in the “context […] and people to which the film relates.” Whether Ram Leela slights the traditional enactment of the Ramayana or is merely a reference to the movie’s protagonists is best decided by the FCAT. Lawmakers must take up the Mudgal Committee's recommendations in earnest to avoid such scenarios as the one created by the Madhya Pradesh High Court’s order.