In the wake of the controversy over ‘Aarakshan,' for State governments to say that a film has the potential to incite violence or create a law and order problem is a specious argument.

“Fanaa,” “Parzania,” “Jodha Akbar,” “My Name Is Khan,” “Such a Long Journey,” M.F. Husain. “Aarakshan” is the latest in the list to have joined the 'banned'-wagon. Recently, freedom of expression in India has been put to the test in a way that it has not before, barring the Emergency, and we seem to be moving more and more away from the very ideals that shaped our Constitution.

What generated no comments 40 years ago has now become breaking news, despite the fact that as a nation we should have matured and gone beyond such issues. We talk of ourselves as a giant superpower in the making, yet our political parties act with tunnel vision.

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is a body set up by the Central government for a definite purpose. The merit or demerit of censorship in a society like ours is a debatable issue, beyond the scope of this piece. But surely it is unacceptable for any group or organisation to object to a film when the CBFC has seen it fit to clear the film for screening.

What makes things truly disturbing is that the State, which should in the first place be at the forefront of upholding what one of its own wings has decided, succumbs to misplaced populism on unfounded fears. For State governments to say that a film has the potential to incite violence or create a law and order problem is a specious argument. First, at a fundamental level, how can any government infringe on one's right to choose what to watch or not? Second, is it not the government's first duty to ensure law and order, come what may, in the face of threats by intolerant and unreasonable individuals or groups?

What is it that has triggered discontent and media speculation on issues that would probably not garner such mileage 20 years ago? And what are the issues on which bans are being called for? Drop the word “barber” from a film's title because the word insults a community? Use “Mumbai” in place of “Bombay”? (What if the film/novel is a period piece set in the 1960s or 1970s, when people called it Bombay?) A word in a song that has the potential to upset a community, when no one probably has even paid attention to the word in the first place? Surely we have graver issues at hand to occupy us?

The rise of the electronic media is one reason: Nowadays, mischief-makers cutting across party and religious lines know that they need to just indulge in some acts of vandalism to get their 15 minutes of fame.

The problem is exacerbated because we the people have lacked the courage to stand up to these elements. Too many of us are scared of our business interests being hurt, our public image being sullied to call the bluff of the rowdy elements, who consequently draw courage from our cowardice. Once we stand up to be counted, I am sure the saner elements in society, who far outnumber the fringe lunatics, will come out in support and force the lumpens to beat a retreat.

It is heartening to read that Minister for Information and Broadcasting Ambika Soni has come out in support of “Aarakshan” being shown without cuts, pointing out that in the first place and for this particular film, the CBFC was expanded to nine members. But the government should now walk the talk.

As a member of the film fraternity, I am saddened and disturbed by the losses our industry is suffering as a result of these bans and protests. In this atmosphere of fear, film-makers will not be able to make anything but the most banal and superficial of films and the common audience member will choose not to risk life and limb time and time again to defend his or her freedom to watch films.

There is a civilised way of articulating one's views and registering one's protests. In this, the government and State agencies have the primary responsibility to ensure the safety of life and property, instead of getting cowed down at the first hint of trouble.

It is a very disturbing signal to send out by saying an extreme step like banning a film is being taken to ensure there is no violence.

I personally believe in what Voltaire said: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the last your right to say it.” And I have every right to demand the same of my government.

(The author is an actor and former chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification.)

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