A Tamil action thriller "Vishwaroopam" (The Gigantic Guardian Figure) that revolves around an Indian intelligence agent thwarting a "terrorist" attack by fighters from Afghanistan in New York has set off protests on the streets, court battles and loud debates on artistic freedom across India in the past week.
The film cost over a hundred crore Indian rupees ($18.79m) and was set to be simultaneously released across the country in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi on January 25.
The Tamil Nadu government in south India called for its ban following protests by some Muslim organisations last week who said the film “hurt their sentiments” and objected that the "terrorist" in the film is a Muslim character.
MH Jawahirullah of Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (Tamil Nadu’s Forward Muslim’s Bloc) and a member of the state legislative assembly said, “The screening of the movie will affect social harmony in the state”.
The ban on the film was dismissed by the high court of the state. However, the Tamil Nadu government restored the ban citing possible law and order problems following protests.
The filmaker and actor, Kamal Haasan, bemoaned that his artistic ambitions were “thwarted and destroyed”. He has appealed to the courts to lift the ban and is expecting a favourable judgement by February 6 from the state court for the Tamil version of the film.
“My belief in the law of the land and that justice and truth shall prevail remain unshaken,” Haasan said during a press event in Chennai.
Politics and culture
J Jayalalithaa, chief minister of the state government, defended the state's decision not to show the film. It would be impossible for the state’s police machinery to deploy its force to more than 500 cinemas to offer protection for film screenings, she said.
“My first responsibility is towards law and order,” she said in a press briefing.
"My first responsibility is towards law and order"
- J Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, explaining why she supported the film ban
Legal experts say that the onus for protecting free speech and maintaining law and order is on the state government and a blanket ban on the film’s screening in not the answer.
Some analysts believe the state government's decision is more about politics than religion. Responding to reporters in Chennai questioning if she had a “vendetta” to settle with Haasan who had earlier planned to release his film via DTH (Direct to Home) through a private channel and not the channel allied to her political party, the chief minister dismissed allegations, saying she held “no personal grudge against Mr Kamal Haasan”.
She urged him to settle the matter amicably with the aggrieved Muslim groups instead.
Samanth Subramanian, a writer and commentator, said: “The primary villain in such cases is the state which bends backwards to placate offended groups and offers sanction to their objections with an eye on protecting their vote bank."
'Infringement on expression'
The Central Board of Film Certification, the apex body in India which screens all films before they are released in cinemas, had cleared "Vishwaroopam" as fit for viewing by all.
Censor Board chairman Leela Samson called the ban from the Tamil Nadu government “an infringement on freedom of expression” and the “hounding of an artist, a man who is an icon of Tamil Nadu”.
"Vishwaroop's" version in the Hindi language, released in north India, has been deemed “insulting to Muslim sentiments” by some viewers.
Muslim scholars such as Maulana Khalid Rasheed Maheli in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh have called for a ban as a show of solidarity for their southern Muslim brothers who have found it objectionable.
The actor Rahul Bose who plays the character of Omar, the "terrorist" in the film, told a TV audience that his character had “no resemblance or similarity to Mullah Omar”, a Taliban leader in Afghanistan.
Many commentators see the ban as part of an unhealthy trend in muzzling creativity, and accuse and political parties kow-towing to various interest groups.
Portrait of a film star
"The real tragedy is that political parties of all kinds, from the Maoists and the CPM to the regional to the right-wing ones, almost all of them without exception are either using this tool or [are] terrified of their opponents wielding it"
- Ruchir Joshi, author and commentator
Kamal Haasan, 58, is an actor who has recieved many honours. He won the National Award for acting and filmmaking four times over, a coveted trophy in India and a feat unmatched by actors from other languages. He has acted in more than 200 films in many Indian languages.
In addition to starring in films, Haasan has been a director, songwriter, singer, and poet.
Known for speaking-out against violence motivated by religious beliefs, Haasan's film "Hey Ram" took on Hindu fundamentalists and his movie "Anbe Sivam" spoke of the need for mercy and kindness.
Following the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, Haasan had spoken in favour of his “Muslim brethren”. He supported secular leaders including HH Mohammad Abdul Ali, Prince of Arcot in Chennai, in the founding of Harmony India, an inter-faith forum for peace and harmony.
A Hindu Brahmin from a Vaishnavite sect in Tamil Nadu, Haasan is a left-leaning artist who has openly decried caste and religion and spoken in favour of science and rational approachs to understanding the world.
“I am taking on irrational acts in the name of religion”, he said in defence of his film "Vishwaroopam".
Culture of offence
Haasan is not alone in coming under the ire of political and religious leaders in recent times. “More and more 'leaders', small, medium and big are willing to use this offense, either 'religious offense' or 'ethnical offense' as a tool to increase or shore up their power," Ruchir Joshi, an author and commentator, told Al Jazeera.
While Haasan awaits the fate of "Vishwaroopam’s" release in his hometown in Chennai, other actors and writers have come under the scanner in the past fortnight for causing offense.
India’s Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan’s article on being an Indian liberal Muslim and a movie icon in the newsmagazine Outlook caused outrage when he expressed how he resists being used by political outfits and believes in secularism.
Pakistan's interior minister invited Khan to live in Pakistan if he felt unsafe in India owing to his Muslim identity.
The Indian government had reacted swiftly to this, leading Khan to clarify that he had not meant to cause offense for the contents of the article.
“Everyone is easily outraged and needs to be mollified,” said Subramanian, the commentator, exasperatedly.
Filmmaker Karan Johar and Bollywood biggies rallied to Khan’s support. Johar said that Khan’s words were twisted out of context by those who use “religion as a tool” to stir controversies.
Rushdie banned from Kolkata
On January 30, the author Salman Rushdie was banned from attending the Kolkata Book Fair as part of his engagements over the release of the film "Midnight’s Children" based on his novel.
The West Bengal government has been accused of opposing Rushdie fearing the writer would offend its Muslim followers.
“The real tragedy is that political parties of all kinds, from the Maoists and the CPM to the regional to the right-wing ones, almost all of them without exception are either using this tool or [are] terrified of their opponents wielding it,” Joshi said of religious controversies.
Joshi hopes that the “regressive” culture of raking up controversies by India’s political and religious groups will fail when the people will see through “the corruption and the pseudo-religious, pseudo-traditional manipulations of the political parties”.
Until that day Kamal Haasan and artists of his ilk will have to fight for their freedom of expression.