Cinema and controversies aren’t Siamese twins. But, they aren’t parallel lines either. History shows that many films have dealt with obstacles and protests. Allegations of factual distortions and hurting religious sentiments are two of the reasons why they have faced the wrath of resistance groups and politicians. Disruptive forces have insisted on bans and modifications, often burning effigies and vandalising theatres to make their voices heard. AR Murugadoss’s Tamil film Sarkar ran into trouble after AIADMK supporters responded violently to its alleged mockery of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and her flagship scheme of distributing freebies in keeping with her electoral promise made in 2011.
Wilting under pressure, the makers deleted the scenes under fire and also muted a couple of words. Sarkar’s producers Sun Pictures sent out a press release, which specified that changes had been made to ensure a disturbance-free experience for the theatre-going viewer. What an unfortunate turn of events, considering that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) did not ask for these cuts and changes before certifying the film. More and more filmmakers are experiencing the fall outs of working in an increasingly intolerant environment. Abhishek Kapoor’s Kedarnath, a soon-to-be-released love story of a Muslim porter and a Hindu pilgrim, has been courting a major controversy. Protesters are raising questions without seeing the film, which is indefensible.
Teerth purohits of Chardham temple are miffed. Vinod Shukla, the chairman of Kedarnath priests, issued a statement saying that priests ‘will launch an agitation if the movie is not banned since we have been told that it hurts the Hindu religious statements by promoting love jihad.’ BJP leader Ajendra Ajay asked why the film had to show a Muslim lead and not a Hindu one, among other things. “By setting a romantic love story against the backdrop of a huge tragedy that occurred at Kedarnath, a centre of faith for crores of Hindus, the filmmakers have shown great disrespect to the followers of the religion,” Ajay told PTI.
What does the average film goer seek? After the lights go off and walking-talking images light up the screen, the viewer wants to get entertained. Nitpicking doesn’t interest this person, who knows that films are the outcome of creative freedom. The real problem is a small minority which rebels against anything that appears to contradict its notions of correctness. The dominance of post-truth, which has empowered idle guesswork, leads to extreme reactions.
Like Kedarnath, the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Zero has been also ‘judged’ on the basis of its trailer. Amritpal Singh Khalsa, an advocate, filed a petition in the Bombay High Court seeking action under Indian Penal Code section 295 (A), which pertains to deliberate and malicious acts that outrage religious feelings or convictions. The petition refers to the sequence in which SRK seems to be wearing a garland of ₹500 notes and a ‘kirpan’ which is of historical significance to the Sikhs. BJP MLA Manjinder Singh Sirsa also filed a complaint against SRK and director Aanand L Rai in a Delhi police station for the same reason. Acting fast, the makers stated that “the film does not depict a Kirpan. The filmmakers have been careful not to hurt the feelings of any community, including the Sikh community.” It clarified that the dagger shown in the film is known as a ‘katar’, an explanation Sirsa accepted. The modern-day filmmaker is becoming increasingly susceptible to questions he or she must answer.
It is not as if controversies and protests were non-existent in the past, though. Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) had faced the protesters’ wrath for showing a lesbian relationship. Things had turned terribly ugly after Mehta’s Water (2005), which dealt with the plight of widows living in ‘widow houses’, ran into serious problems. Protesters destroyed the sets in Varanasi and threatened the director. Leading the rowdy crowd were the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the BJP and Kashi Sanskrit Raksha Sangharsh Samiti, an offspring of the RSS. Considering that work on the film had barely begun, this was intolerance at its worst.
Gujarat’s theatre owners didn’t want to touch Parzania (2007), which was inspired by the real-life disappearance of a young boy named Azhar Mody after the Gulbarg Society massacre in the 2002 communal riots. Nishabd (2007) angered those who felt that an old man’s relationship with a teenager questioned Indian values.
Ram-Leela, the original title of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2013 film, wasn’t acceptable to some religious groups like Prabhu Samaj Dharmik Ram Leela Committee, which petitioned that it hurt religious sentiments. The title was changed to Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. Tamil nationalist organisations asked for a ban on Madras Café (2013) because of the seemingly obvious references to the LTTE and also for disparaging the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka. Hairdressers objected to the title Billu Barber (2009) since they felt that the usage of the word ‘barber’ was derogatory. The word was subsequently dropped from the title. The first poster of PK (2014) with a bare-bodied Aamir Khan was greeted with contempt by its critics.
That was not the end of the story. Right-wing groups such as the VHP insisted that the film made a mockery of Hinduism, leading to protests and threats. Udta Punjab (2016) dealing with the drug menace in Punjab, triggered protests. Some believed that the state was being shown in a bad light. Bhansali’s Padmaavat was released early this year after a tiring battle with obstacles. The Rajput outfit, Karni Sena, alleged that the queen at the centre of the story had been shown in a bad light. The film was eventually released, also with a changed title. Manikarnika, which tells the story of Rani Laxmibai, hasn’t been released yet. But it gave rise to controversy after Sarv Brahmin Mahasabha alleged that it distorts facts and shows the queen in a relationship with a Britisher.
Producer Kamal Jain brought the situation under control with a letter of assurance to Suresh Mishra, the national president of the organisation. The letter states that the film hasn’t distorted history and the queen is not seen in any song-and dance sequence with a Britisher. The act symbolises the need to subjugate one’s self to external forces that have no link with the creative process but want to control the bigger picture. If films have courted controversies and protests in the past, which they have, how have things changed? An increase in the frequency of such episodes is the answer. Conservative outfits and politicians are asking questions because of which films have become increasingly vulnerable. This is a worrying sign, which will intimidate filmmakers while taking us into a very dark age.