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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Hamare Baarah and Maharaj: To watch or not to watch

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Last week, courts in India stayed the release of two films they felt could lead to law and order problems. The Supreme Court (SC) on Thursday prevented the release of Kamal Chandra directed Hamare Baarah, starring Annu Kapoor in a leading role, from releasing June 14.


Earlier, the film was supposed to be released on June 7 but the Bombay High Court (HC) stopped it, following a complaint filed by one Azhar Basha Tamboli, who claimed that the movie misinterpreted the Quran and also portrayed Muslims in a bad light. After the Bombay HC cleared it for release, Tamboli moved the Supreme Court, which agreed that even its teaser was offensive.


The film’s title is a clever play on Hum Do Hamare Do (We Two, Our Two), the catchline for an old and popular advertisement of the government’s family planning programme. But, at the same time, it is suggesting that Indian Muslims deliberately produce more children in an attempt to alter the country’s demography.


On the same day (June 13), the Gujarat High Court stopped the release of the Hindi film Maharaj on streaming platform Netflix. Directed by Siddharth P Malhotra, the film is the launch vehicle of actor-producer Aamir Khan’s son Junaid Khan. Its narrative reportedly revolves around the 1862 Maharaja Libel Case, in which Jadunathji Brijratanji Maharaj, a religious leader of the Vaishnavite Pushtimarg sect, successfully sued social reformer and journalist Karsandas Mulji in the Bombay High Court for writing an article accusing him of having sexual relations with women devotees. 


Members of the same sect have now sued the producers of the film, Yash Raj Films, claiming that the depiction of their community might lead to “hatred and violence”.


The Supreme Court’s decision to postpone the release of a film that purportedly promotes an Islamophobic conspiracy theory is commendable. Historically, the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry has self-fashioned itself as a promoter of the secular values of the Indian nation enshrined in the Constitution. However, since 2014, a slew of films have been released that film critics and scholars have described as anti-Muslim. Some of these — Padmaavat (2018), Panipat: The Great Betrayal (2019), and Tanhaji (2020) — have villainised India’s medieval Islamic rulers. Scholars such as Ajay Gehlawat have compared such films to the propaganda documentaries produced by German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl for the Nazis in the 1930s.  


Other films such as The Kashmir Files (2022), which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had recommended to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s members of Parliament, or The Kerala Story (2023), have a more contemporary setting — but these have also been accused of peddling half-truths and disinformation, targeting Muslims.


Film scholar Ashvin Devasundaram writes in a 2022 essay: “Bollywood blockbusters espousing triumphalist ultra-nationalistic themes, valorising war against India’s archrival Pakistan, and promoting Hindu religious values and rituals as synonyms of Indian identity have been commercially successful thanks in part to political patronage.” Earlier this year, journalist Kunal Purohit pointed out how as many as 10 films had been slated for release in the run-up to the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections to promote the BJP’s agenda and Hindutva ideology.


The desire to prevent harm — especially when there is a precedence — is an unexceptionable reason for censorship by courts and states. Opinions vary on how to control the harmful effects of films and other works of art that target vulnerable groups. Scholars and activists such as Stephen L Newman and Nadine Strossen argue that censorship might be ineffective in controlling hate speech, which should be allowed to wither away in the marketplace of ideas.


Others, however, recognise the necessity of distinguishing harmful speech from offensive speech and preventing the former. Different geographies have different levels of tolerance for different kinds of speech — but ultimately, what will be censored and what will be allowed remains open to subjective interpretation.


Media scholar Cherian George, in his influential book Hate Spin (2017), makes a conceptual distinction between hate speech and offensive speech. In hate speech, the group that is targeted in the speech is also the group that is vulnerable to attacks. He provides the example of the Rwandan genocide, where Hutu supremacist groups targeted Tutsis in the media. In the genocide that followed, about 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis were killed.


Whereas in offensive speech, “artists and journalists are attacked because their work is deemed offensive,” writes George. “Words go one way; sticks and stones fly in the reverse direction.” Censoring a film because it might offend a particular group — as has often happened in India — is an example of the latter.


During the shoot of Padmaavat and after its release, the Rajasthan-based Karni Sena staged extensive protests, that turned violent at times. It also threatened physical harm to the film’s leading actress Deepika Padukone. As a result, several states banned the film and some cinema owners also refused to screen it, till a Supreme Court ruling against the censorship of the film. Karni Sena finally withdrew its protests after its members watched the film at a special screening in Mumbai. 


But, such deference to strategic offence taken by any group concedes ground to what free speech activists describe as the heckler’s veto. Restrictions on speech because of the real or anticipated offence it might cause erode free speech.


Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He teaches journalism at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat

First Published: Jun 16 2024 | 11:22 AM IST


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