Clamping down on creativity

In Tamil Nadu, where cinema serves as a medium for social and political propaganda, Kollywood has not been spared from periodic attacks by politicians and sociocultural groups. A controversy has engulfed Jai Bhim, which has grabbed attention worldwide by racing to the top of the IMDb ratings, displacing the 1994 Hollywood classic The Shawshank Redemption. Hailed for its gripping but fictionalised portrayal of a real incident of police brutality, it has riled up certain political, caste and right-wing outfits. They have accused it of “deliberate and wrong” portrayal of the Vanniyars, a dominant Most Backward Class community, and ‘Hinduisation’ of the film’s villain. Except for some principal characters, the names of others involved in the true incident were fictionalised in the film, which the critics have seized upon to fire salvos.

Firing salvos

The Vanniyar Sangam and its political off-shoot, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), were upset over a 1995 dated calendar hung on the wall of the house of ‘Gurumurthy’, the villainous police officer. The calendar had an image of the ‘Agni Kundam’ (fire pot), a symbol used by their community. As soon as this was flagged, the film-makers replaced it with an image of a Hindu deity. But the issue rages on. PMK leader Anbumani Ramadoss and Vanniyar Sangam president Pu Tha Arulmozhi contend that the villain was purposely named Gurumurthy to denote ‘Kaduvetti’ J. Guru, a late Vanniyar leader. Some BJP leaders and their affiliates latched on, claiming that the police officer, whose real name was Anthonysamy, “a Christian”, was intentionally given a Hindu name to depict Hinduism in poor light. So, a narrative that started off as an affront to one Hindu community has since then sought to be elevated as a pan-Hindu one.

Actor and co-producer Suriya Sivakumar and director T.J. Gnanavel have insisted that none of the scenes/names were intentional. The actor refused to tender an apology, despite threats. Instead, he urged Dr. Ramadoss to recognise the importance of protecting the freedom of expression and steer clear of “name-politics”. Incidentally, Mr. Suriya, a philanthropist for educational causes, is among the few Kollywood personalities to have openly voiced opinions against certain central government policies.

This is not an isolated case. While past Chief Ministers, who came from the cine world, pampered Kollywood, they did little to uphold an artist’s creative liberties. In 1987, following agitations, the state objected to the release of Ore Oru Gramathile, which advocated for reservations solely based on economic criteria. The Supreme Court, which cleared the film, noted: “Freedom of expression which is legitimate and constitutionally protected, cannot be held to ransom, by an intolerant group of people... We must practise tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.” Though the Court made it clear that it is a State’s duty to prevent any attempt to muzzle freedom of expression, many films ran into trouble subsequently. In 2006, during the DMK regime, the Hollywood film Da Vinci Code was banned following objections from Christian groups. (The ban was set aside by the Madras High Court.) In 2013, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa not only banned Viswaroopam following protests from Muslim outfits but justified it citing inadequate police manpower to provide security to theatres. It would not be out of place to recall what Justice Prabha Sridevan said in the Da Vinci Code case: “Such threats to freedom of artistic expression... [are] not healthy; to echo Justice Brandeis, this trend will rock the stability of the State.”

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 4:36:35 PM |

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