Kamal Haasan has run into two controversies while trying to release Vishwaroopam, his new film.
Controversy one: Theatre owners were furious when Haasan said he would first show his film to home audiences via direct-to-home (DTH) broadcasts.
Controversy two: Some Muslim groups have tried to get the film banned because they claim it would “hurt religious sentiments”.
The first controversy offers a solution for the second.
Let us assume for a moment that Haasan had succeeded in disrupting the usual arrangement for the distribution of films, and aired it on television first. It is quite likely that millions would have seen the film before the protesters could even have reacted.
And what if they had tried to protest before the TV release? To figure that out, take a look at what the Tamil Nadu government has done. The prohibitory orders have been imposed by a group of district collectors in the state under section 144 of the criminal procedure code. This section essentially tries to deal with a law and order problem that could arise when a large group of people meet. It would not have applied to viewing the movie from the comfort of a home.
Disruptive technologies have challenged autocracies around the world. Twitter was used as a tool for public mobilization during the Arab Spring. Cable television helped undermine the legitimacy of several communist states earlier. Even the Chinese government is struggling to deal with online networks that have empowered citizens.
India has the makings of an illiberal democracy, with vocal groups trying to silence freedom of expression. Our writers, intellectuals, artists and film makers are still protected by a liberal constitution, but the recent events are surely a cause for worry.
At least in some cases, digital technologies offer a useful way to beat mob censorship.