In the end, it is up to Kamal Haasan to decide how he wants to deal with the complaints his film Vishwaroopam has generated, even though most critics of the film are unlikely to have seen the film—unless they’ve violated laws related to film piracy and managed to see it before its release. Haasan can choose to fight those critics by refusing to make any cuts beyond what the Central Board of Film Certification may have demanded, and he would be right to do so. Ultimately, the authority to censor content rests with the legally authorized entity—the Board—which follows precise guidelines judiciously, and requires cuts in films. Haasan has followed the letter of the law, and if he stays firm, he will succeed in the long run, because he will win the battle in the higher courts.
Haasan also has the right to engage his critics, who claim to be offended by the film. He can, of course, choose to make changes to his film—deleting portions, cutting scenes, adding material (for example, writing a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, so that those seeing it are clear that they are seeing a dramatized version, a work of fiction, and not a fact), and so on. If Haasan does that, it is his choice. But it would be a poor choice, even if understandable, and here’s why.
By surrendering to unelected and unauthorized critics, he delegitimizes legal processes in India. It undermines the authority of the film certification board. If the way Haasan has proposed is right, then why bother with the board, and what’s the point of CBFC? Simply disband it. In future, anyone making any film can get a self-appointed group, ask them if it is OK for him to release his film, and then release it after the group approves the film. This is not as outlandish as it seems. Recall that an association of barbers forced Shah Rukh Khan to drop the word “barber” from his film, Billoo Barber. Police groups in various cities have often complained about how they are shown in film—as drunk, dancing comedians, as corrupt inspectors leering at item number girls, or as torturing demons that some of them are. In a famous instance in the 1980s, lawyers were upset when in the film New Delhi Times Shashi Kapoor, acting as an editor, told his wife, Sharmila Tagore, that all lawyers are liars. The list can get long.
This shows a deeper problem: a failure to understand, nay, sometimes deliberately refusing to accept, the difference between the views of the creator and his creation. It is impossible to make a film, even with a redeeming message, if no character is allowed to say something nasty, or act villainously. Yes, characters can make disparaging remarks about a group, a religion, or its followers. The message of the film is usually at the end, and with most commercial films (which Haasan expects his film to be) the conclusion is foregone—good triumphs over evil.
In the end, the protesting groups are refusing to accept how the creative process works. Individual or collective, a creative process has integrity if it reflects the view of the people creating a particular work of art. Like a novelist, a film-maker weaves a plot by creating different characters, not all of them pleasant, and imagines them in fictitious settings, where they act out their roles, guiding the process to reveal a larger truth. Creative individuals are under no obligation to imagine something that always ennobles: presenting a harrowing reality as part of a tragedy is a legitimate exercise, and as with real life, nice people don’t always win. And that’s fine, too.
While writing the script of his film, while plotting it, and while filming it, Haasan had every right to consult everyone he wanted, and conduct all research. After that he produced a work which had its own integrity. A legally constituted body then permitted it to be screened. Matters should end there.
Commercial considerations may force him now to bow to bullies who want him to change this and that. It is understandable, but it doesn’t make it right. It sets a terrible example for others. Haasan must realize that these groups cannot be placated. If he gets his film approved by one group, what will he do when another group emerges tomorrow, call the first group a sell-out, and demand that theatres be vandalized? Where will this end?
This is how the movie ends: In a complete reverse of the message of popular cinema, in India, in the real world, evil triumphs over good.