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Through the smoke screen

Unofficial bans on films like Parzania is a challenge to India’s artistic community, writes AG Noorani.
None | By AG Noorani
UPDATED ON MAR 13, 2007 02:42 AM IST

‘How can Parzania ever be shown [in Gujarat] without our approval?” Babu Bajrangi claimed. Who is he and what is the film about?

Bajrangi is the principal accused in the Naroda Patiya massacre case, where more than 100 people were killed during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. He has two other claims to fame: involvement in a project to kidnap Hindu girls married to non-Hindus and force them to divorce their husbands and the bashing up of young couples on college campuses or gardens. For one such act, he was arrested on December 12.

What is the film about? On February 28, 2002, Azhar Mody went missing from Gulberg Society in Ahmedabad. The family had taken refuge in the home of Ehsan Jaffri, who himself was the one the mob was after. Many were killed besides him. Azhar got separated in the chaos and has not been found since. The film is about his parents’ desperate search for him. His father, Dara Mody, had hoped that after watching the film, “Amdavadis would be sensitised to our plight. But it seems one powerful person decides which films people can watch”. Bajrangi could not have gone so far unless he had the tacit support of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, judicially called the Neo of our times.

The film’s director, Rahul Dholakia, scion of an eminent Gujarati family, belongs to the city and has known the family since 1996. He shared their grief. “Most of all, I felt the pain of a mother’s heart.” The film is not about the pogrom. It is about “the trauma and anguish of a simple Parsi family which calls Ahmedabad its home, got caught in the 2002 riots, and which lost a young son... I decided to make a film to tell the world about their search. No person involved in this film is expecting monetary benefits”. It stars Naseeruddin Shah and Sarika.

Dholakia was flatly told by everyone, including the president of the Gujarat Multiplex Owners Association, Manubhai Patel, that the film’s release needed Bajrangi’s consent. On February 6, Patel, after meeting Bajrang Dal activists and Dholakia, said, “As of now, we have taken a decision not to show the film. Though the police have promised protection to multiplexes, we don’t want to take any chances.” Neither he, nor Bajrangi, nor any of the Bajrang Dal members who sat at the meeting had seen the film. Bajrangi declared, “I will not disclose my strategy but I will certainly do something to ensure that the film is not shown here.”

Dholakia disclosed that one of the theatre owners was tipped off that the state government “had taken a decision on not showing Parzania”; not by this devious stratagem. Dholakia asks, “If Amu, a film based on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, or Black Friday, on the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993, could be screened, why not Parzania?”

The question, though legitimate, is pointless in the face of officially-supported mob terror. As businessmen, theatre owners submit. Mahesh Bhatt’s film Zakhm suffered this fate and so did Fanaa. In Gujarat, the real issue is whether the law is powerless to foil unofficial bans by the State, using or condoning the mob.

It is not. The fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression implies the right to receive information and the business of running the 13,500 theatres in the country is, in the words of the US Supreme Court in a different context, a business “affected with a public interest”. It involves not only the owners’ right to exhibit but also those of the viewers to watch films. Some nuances and concepts on the right, while well-known abroad, are little developed in India.

Free speech involves pluralism, democracy and the public good in free debate. Theatre owners’ rights are not absolute. As our Supreme Court ruled, they “have no unrestricted right” to exhibit films. “They are carrying on the business under a licence containing the terms and conditions” prescribed by law. The court has upheld S.12 (u) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, which empowers the Government of India (GOI) to issue directions to licensees to exhibit films which are or intended for educational purposes, or deal with “news and current events”, documentaries or “indigenous films”. They are produced by the Films Division of the GOI.

This law is aimed at “promoting dissemination of ideas, information and knowledge to the masses so that there may be an informed debate and decision-making on public issues”. It is designed “to further free speech and expression and not to curtail it”. It would be another matter if “a propaganda film” is imposed on the owner or “a film conveying views which he objects to”. It noted that films play an important role in a country where illiteracy is widespread and access to knowledge is limited.

Since none of the theatre owners had seen Parzania, the question of it “conveying views which he objects to” does not arise. What is in issue is the collective decision made under coercion not to exhibit a particular film and, relatedly, the state government’s tacit support to Bajrangi. This affects the people’s fundamental right to watch the film. The US Supreme Court’s ruling is decisive: “The people as a whole retain their interest in free speech by radio and their collective right to have the medium function consistently with the ends of purposes of the First Amendment (Guarantee of Free Speech). It is the right of viewers and listeners, not the right of broadcasters, which is paramount.” This applies to theatre owners, no less.

It ruled later that the goal is to achieve “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources”. The public interest is harmed by a system “heavily weighted in favour of the financially affluent or those with access to wealth” — or those who enjoy official support to terror, one might add.

Our Supreme Court has agreed with both these rulings. Relevant is the analogy of picketing; permissible as an “expression” of protest; not as “action” that obstructs others.

Professor Eric Barendt asks: “What if the principle media of expression are controlled by particular individuals or corporations and they deny members of minority groups the opportunity to express their views... should or may government intervene to promote freedom of expression in the interests of pluralism.” The French Conseil ruled that the right to free speech conferred on readers a right to choose. “Media pluralism is a constitutional value.” Our Supreme Court has, however, repeatedly drawn a distinction between the print media and TV and films. Some curbs on the latter are permissible.

The Supreme Court has ruled that “the State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression”. In Gujarat, the State has itself supported, if not created, the forces of intimidation.

The court can do two things — order Modi to prosecute Bajrangi and associates and pay damages for violating Dholakia’s right to screen films. The theatre owners should be given an option to respond. They did not object to the contents of the film. If they do on the merits they should be heard. But if their refusal is capricious, they can be ordered to screen the film. The citizen’s right to see Parzania must be upheld.

The case is a challenge not only to the legal system but to India’s artistic and intellectual community and its plural polity. Centuries ago, Solon, when asked how a people could preserve their liberties, replied, “Those who are uninjured by an arbitrary act must be taught to feel as much indignation at it as those who are injured.”

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