Kamal Haasan would find it blackly comic, perhaps, that one political voice raised in support of his film, Vishwaroopam, is that of the Shiv Sena representative in Tamil Nadu. To have one’s creative freedom championed by the Shiv Sena should be bizarre comfort for the Tamil icon of cinema, awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian State a little more than two decades ago. Mr Haasan seems to have staked his ancestral home on this Rs 100-crore film, and would lose a great deal, if not all, if its screening remains suspended by the Tamil Nadu government. Yet, a lot more than a house and fortune are at stake in this matter — and not only for Mr Haasan or his state government, but also for the the Indian polity, society and law, and for democratic rights and principles in general. Film certification is under Central legislation, and a state government getting the court to ban the release of a film certified by the national board of censors is an act of ‘pre-censorship’ that turns the Cinematograph Act upside down at the cost of a serious infringement of the right to an individual’s freedom of expression. One of the authorities supporting the ban has even dismissed film certification as a “very big scam”, which may be overruled by other, more legitimate, forms of power. This is not the first time, though, that Mr Haasan faces this sort of censorship. His film, Hey Ram, had to contend with the bigoted or frightened obstructiveness of both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress.
Between the Tamil Nadu chief minister invoking her concern for “law and order” for the ban and her political opponents alleging commercially motivated political intrigue, it is both sad and alarming that the public discourse around such an event remains as mindless and adversarial as ever. Even those representatives of the minority organizations who are said to have been offended by the film seem to have no opinion or position worth its name that might be debated rationally in a modern democracy. Mr Haasan has publicly expressed his despair with the failure of governance in his own state, declaring that he might soon feel driven to look for a truly secular ‘elsewhere’ as a place where he can live and work. Film-makers, writers and artists in India may soon have to think twice before hoping that such a principled and free-thinking haven might be found in their own country.