Tamil nationalist groups are again displaying an intolerant streak. They want Madras Café, a film loosely based on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, to be banned because it shows the Tamil Eelam struggle in Sri Lanka in a poor light. Though the Madras High Court has rightly declined to stay the release of the film, some groups seeking to ban the film are readying themselves to create a law and order problem as a form of protest. That apprehension of law and order disruptions cannot be grounds for banning a film is settled law and has been upheld repeatedly by the Supreme Court of India. In its judgment in S. Rangarajan v Jagjivan Ram involving the film Ore Oru Gramathile, in 1989, the court was unequivocal that “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of [the] threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence.” The right to freedom of speech and expression is enshrined in the Constitution, and chauvinist elements, no matter of what hue, should not be allowed to infringe on this right citing some imagined slight to a group or community. The onus is on the State government and its policing arm to act against those attempting to disrupt law and order. Whether the film is good or bad, whether it is fact or fiction, all these have nothing to do with the right to freedom of expression of the film-makers and artistes.
Of late, film-makers and distributors have been organising special screenings for representatives of groups or communities who apprehend that the film could be offensive to their sensibilities. In Tamil Nadu, the government appears to have encouraged such groups by banning the film Dam 999 and seeming sympathetic to those wanting a ban on Vishwaroopam. The Central Board of Film Certification is the only competent body to censor a film, and once cleared by the board, no film should again have to be subjected to “clearance” from groups claiming to have been offended by it. Chauvinist elements are emboldened when a government adds to the pressure on the film-makers, instead of getting tough on those threatening to disturb law and order. Too often, the producers are forced to compromise and agree to cuts rather than risk prolonging the release of the film. When the government does not stand up for freedom of speech and expression, film-makers, distributors and exhibitors think it is safer to buy peace with the chauvinist groups. It would reflect very poorly on the administrative capabilities of the Tamil Nadu government if the film is withheld from exhibition for fear of violence. As for those who wish to protect their fragile sensibilities from being hurt in any manner, how’s this for a really simple remedy? Don’t see the movie.