“In India we do not think who we are, we know who we are.” This sentence from the Peter Sellers film “The Party” was one of Indira Gandhi’s favourite quotes. She held a special screening of the film, for children of members of her staff. The irony is that later her government had to ban its release in India, because of protests by people who were outraged that the film caricatured Indians for Hollywood in the persona of Hrundi V. Bakshi.Dominant culture
An India that had emerged from colonialism felt outraged by Hrundi Bakshi almost in the same manner that some south Indians took umbrage to the Indian actor Mehmood’s caricaturisation of south Indians when he played the dance master Pillai in the Hindi film “Padosan.” Both films aroused a feeling of victimhood, which ensues when a dominant culture is seen as sneering at the less dominant. Despite the definitive caricaturisation, the Indian and south Indian identities survived and went on to flourish when the heroism of “Slumdog Millionaire” and the superstardom of Rajinikanth became part of the dominant narratives.
Today, some people feel a similar sense of victimhood about Leslee Udwin’s documentary film “India’s Daughter.” The documentary was originally slated for release on March 8, International Women’s Day, and is based on the December 16 2012 rape and murder of ‘Nirbhaya’, the protests against which rocked Delhi and India. The stated reason for the outrage is the well-publicised interview of Mukesh Singh, one of the persons convicted of the gang rape and murder. The actual reason, however, is a deep sense of shame that the nation feels at letting its daughters being brutalised, accompanied by a fatalistic acceptance of male superiority attitudes that seem to be impervious to change.
Mukesh has said in the interview, “You can’t clap with one hand, it takes two hands. A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. A boy and a girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20 per cent of girls are good.” Mukesh’s statements may be outrageous and condemnable but they are not more outrageous than the original crime of rape and murder that he currently stands convicted of. Second, his statements may just about have prejudiced his appeal and the appeals of his co-accused, which are still pending in the Supreme Court.
The rest of the film contains many other interviews with people such as the victim’s parents who want their daughter’s horrific story to be told. Also interviewed are Gopal Subramanium and Leila Seth, who were part of the Committee that submitted legal reports that formed the basis of the rape laws that followed the incident. There are interviews with lawyers for the accused, whose statements reflect a chauvinistic, regressive mindset that reflects the root causes of the crisis. In any story, the heroine’s heroism, the parent’s loss, the lawmaker’s dilemmas can only be brought out if it is contrasted with a full depiction of the extent of the villainous actions and attitudes that lead to the original tragedy. You cannot stage Hamlet without the incest and murder that precedes his madness; nor can you have Othello without Iago’s villainy. John Milton had to forever live with the charge that the true hero of Paradise Lost was Satan himself. You cannot show “Sholay” without a Gabbar Singh’s speeches or laughter. So, far from providing Mukesh a platform for his villainy, he is an essential part of the story, without which the viewer will not feel the full extent of the pity and horror that the girl’s death deserves.
As parliamentarians express outrage and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry issues an advisory to television channels to not broadcast, it is time to ask what does a ban in this case achieve? A ban ensures that a film which may have had a limited audience becomes a worldwide cause célèbre for women’s rights and freedom of speech. In the early 1980’s, Saudi Arabia invited similar international opprobrium, when it sought to interfere with the telecast of the docudrama “Death of a Princess.” The film dealt with the circumstances surrounding the execution of Princess Misha’al bint Fahd of the Saudi ruling family, who, along with her lover, was possibly executed at the instance of her grandfather, for eloping with a commoner. The Saudis even used the good offices of their Texan oil friends, in Mobil Oil Inc., to stop the telecast. Their efforts failed, and till date the telecast remains a watershed moment in the history of Saudi women’s emancipation.
Second, the Internet has made telecast bans largely redundant. Banning a telecast only means that a viewer will watch it online or download the film through torrent sites. What a telecast ban however achieves is that it prevents the target audience of ordinary people from viewing the film. Those without access to the Internet, the technologically challenged, the housewife, those with limited incomes who are most vulnerable to rape and rape threats, will in all probability miss out on the film. On the other hand, the ban will do nothing to effectively restrain those who may want to watch for any supposed prurient interest that the film may excite. The ban, in short, will be ineffective where it is needed and effective where it is an impediment to education of those most likely to benefit from its message.Legally untenable
Third, a ban on telecast is just not legally tenable after the Supreme Court’s judgment of 1994 in Auto Shankar’s case. A temporary stay on telecast may be obtained, but in the final judgment such a ban is unlikely to be upheld. In R. Rajagopal vs. State of Tamil Nadu , the Supreme Court firmly repelled the State of Tamil Nadu’s attempts to prohibit serialisation of the autobiography of Auto Shankar who stood condemned to death. It ruled: “We must accordingly hold that no such prior restraint or prohibition of publication can be imposed by the respondents upon the proposed publication of the alleged autobiography of “Auto Shankar” by the petitioners. This cannot be done either by the State or by its officials. In other words, neither the government nor the officials who apprehend that they may be defamed, have the right to impose a prior restraint upon the publication of the alleged autobiography of Auto Shankar.”
Last, if India bans the film for telecast in India, it will act as an instant advertisement for the film worldwide. In fact BBC4 has already advanced the broadcast of the film even as the Indian government is attempting to serve its court order. The film “The Party” may have passed off as a minor comedy, but for the outrage that it excited in India and the ban it earned. Similarly, one can easily foresee ‘India’s Daughter’ being marketed as the film Incredible India does not want you to see. The answer to an unlikeable film is not a ban, but another film that tells your side. If India were to wisely use the Nirbhaya fund to achieve safe streets for its daughters, ‘India’s Daughter’, from beyond the grave, will have done good for this country.
(Sanjay Hegde is a Supreme Court advocate.)