Can a docu-drama that was aired in Sri Lanka be banned in India on the grounds that it may sour relations with the island nation? The censor board thinks yes, but the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) says: Of course not.
And so, ‘Muttrupulliyaa…?’ the first indigenously made Tamil feature film on the lives of Tamils in Sri Lanka after the civil war ended in 2009 was given the green light by FCAT, which overturned the censor board’s refusal to give the movie a certificate for Indian screenings.
“In case the film would...affected the relationship with a neighbouring country, the Public Performance Board of Sri Lanka would have not approved the film for screening during the Jaffna International Cinema Festival,” said an FCAT February 2016 order.
The film is based on the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils in a 1979 post-war era. Several scenes are graphic and contain visceral imagery of alleged atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Army.
It was, however, premiered at Sri Lanka’s Jaffna International Film Festival in Colombo in September 2015.
“This is not only the first feature film on the plight of the Tamils to be made indigenously, but is also the first on the post-war situation. And the screening in Jaffna is the film’s world premier,” Sherine Xavier, the film’s Lankan Tamil director, screenplay and dialogue writer had told had media at the time.
But when time came to air the movie in India, Xavier was surprised to hear it was too contentious.
The film, said the censor board, was “glorifying the bad effects” of war in Sri Lanka.
“The picture will affect the neighbouring country relations. It also refers to real political leaders of Sri Lanka,” said the censor board.
The only reference to India in the order is: “It also refers to LTTE, which is a banned organisation in India.”
Appealing before the FCAT through her lawyer Satyajit Sarna, Xavier and the film’s producer TS Subramaniam have now received relief.
But the FCAT has imposed heavy conditions of its own.
The appellants have been asked to consider morphing LTTE flags and photographs of the banned organisation’s leaders.
The FCAT also asked and the film’s producers have agreed to reduce certain scenes depicting girls using drugs. Also, the producers have to issue a disclaimer that the “film is only a fictional representation of real events” and a health disclaimer against use of narcotics.
Nevertheless, the makers have agreed to these conditions.
Legal experts agree that this could be part of a larger problem.
“We are no doubt the land of yoga. But this is an incredulous stretch! Not enough that we’ve fostered a culture of intolerance to free speech from within, we’ve now internationalized our fragile fair skin! To take offence at foreign movies found to be kosher by their own home governments!” said Shamnad Basheer, owner of SpicyIP and a visiting professor at the National Law School, Bangalore.
“All of this raises the issue of how ‘independent’ the film certification board really is. It is meant to be an independent statutory agency and yet reflects the prevalent petty mindset of the ruling Raj in more ways than one,” he said.
Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy agreed, saying the board’s decision to ban the film pointed to a larger problem within the film certification body itself.
“That the CBFC wanted to keep this film from screening throws up a problem with CBFC guidelines: They are way too broad; They disallow ‘vulgarity’ for instance, or speaking of particular communities in contemptuous ways- so, there go most Johnny Lever films,” Nundy said.
She also pointed out excessive or stringent reading of guidelines lead to financial difficulties for creatives, in particular for independent filmmakers who are already scrounging for capital to tell their stories.
“They (the CBFC) also force filmmakers into a slow judicial process that can cost big money in delays, also legal costs. These guidelines need to be limited, made more precise and in accordance with the right to freedom of expression, on which jurisprudence to protect creative expression exists -- the CBFC must be guided by that,” she said.
The censor board has become infamous for banning films for various reasons including nudity, crude language, and incitement. Between 1959 to 2015, it banned nearly 40 national level films on these grounds, and 36 regional movies.