Adipurush: to ban or not to ban? - Hindustan Times
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Adipurush: to ban or not to ban?

ByHindustan Times
Jul 26, 2023 12:42 PM IST

This article is authored by Nandita Patel, a Mumbai-based writer.

While hearing two PIL petitions seeking a ban on the movie Adipurush, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court has observed that by depicting the Ramayana “wrongly”, the makers and certifiers of the movie have hurt public sentiment and disturbed public order.

Adipurush (Representative Photo)
Adipurush (Representative Photo)

Although, on the surface, this observation seems pragmatic and well-meaning, it’s problematic. This is because, in a democracy, courts of law must uphold democratic values and liberties, not suppress them - especially not for the sake of “decency, morality and public order”. The Constitution of India guarantees the freedom of speech, not the freedom to take offence. That’s why issues related to “hurt public sentiments” must be resolved, first, by public intellectual debate and dialogue, not by orders from courts of law. Second, by creating space and acceptability for a variety of worldviews, not by inflicting an overarching and absolute position. Third, by using critical thought and reason, not by pandering.

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In a democracy, the law for sanitising/censoring/banning a work of art or rhetoric must be invoked sparingly, mostly to protect the rights of the weak and vulnerable. In other words, the courts’ intervention is warranted if a movie serves as a platform for hatred or violence against children, women, religious or ethnic minorities, and/or backward communities. Or if a movie encourages the young and feeble-minded to harm themselves and/or others, and/or to abuse substances.

When courts take cognisance of that which should be addressed through public intellectual discourse, they inadvertently exacerbate the very problem they seek to sanitise/censor/ban. The usual criticism against Hindi cinema is that, for the sake of commerce, it exploits the dominant ideology by telling the audience what it wants to hear, not what it ought to hear. It’s improbable that the makers of Adipurush would set aside this profit motive to intentionally hurt the sentiments of India’s majority religion, and to stir up trouble. In any case, there’s been no large-scale law-and-order situation across the country with regards to Adipurush. The movie has come and gone. Audiences have rejected it, and moved on. Those who’re offended by it have not resorted to violence, they’ve moved court.

Even so, it’s not for courts of law to impose upon the public the “correct” interpretation of a text, or to ensure fidelity to the “original text”. All of literature, including religious texts, is not only culturally constructed but also exists in a politically contested context. Therefore, the interpretation of stories/films varies depending on who writes them, who reads/watches them, and when and how they do so. This, in itself, is perhaps the best way to read a story, or to watch a film, so that its inherent politics--and its elasticity--is laid bare. And it’s best to leave it at that.

When conflicting interpretations of a text push for pre-eminence, what must prevail is neither that which cancels out one belief-system in favour of another nor that which builds safe distances between incompatible belief-systems. What must prevail is that wherein mindsets adapt and evolve through the rough and tumble of mutual engagement. Put another way, in a democracy, a variety of viewpoints—including those that seem stupid or provocative—must be allowed to air themselves out against each other in the open, so that they not only monitor and regulate each other but also result in a churning, a melting pot of ideas, that makes societies grow stronger and more mature.

This is also why it’s not for courts of law to coddle the hypersensitive, or to yield to their threats of violence and public disorder. Courts of law exist to uphold the primacy of critical thought and reasoning—and the freedom to agree to disagree. In a democracy, this means letting people resolve differences in viewpoints through everything from arguments in classrooms, social media, op-ed columns, TV studios, movies, and other public intellectual fora; to voting with one’s wallet (if you don’t like the movie, don’t buy its tickets, don’t watch it); to participating in public protests and picketing. And it means using the law to protect people’s rights and ability to do so, not the other way around.

It’s unrealistic to expect to live in a world wherein no one will ever do or say that which offends or infuriates us. What’s wrong, in other words, is not the “wrong depiction” of India’s gods and goddesses in Adipurush but the inability to handle this without feeling “disgusted”, threatened or belittled. Banning movies, or chastising movie makers and certifiers, for “wrong depictions” makes for a culture wherein everyone always walk on eggshells - for fear of offending. Just as it makes for a culture wherein everyone is easily provoked and manipulated by anyone who seeks to do so. All it requires is to depict “wrongly” something that’s held dear or worshipped - and voila!

This article is authored by Nandita Patel, a Mumbai-based writer.

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