There was a time when a Bollywood fan keen to see the latest blockbuster in Britain would have had to wait for the pirated video cassette or DVD to turn up at a local Indian grocery store in Southall or Wembley. Those days are gone: sensing the size of the British Asian market, British multiplexes have been screening major Hindi and other Indian films the day they are released in India.
Cineworld is Britain’s sole publicly-listed chain of cinemas, with 80 sites across the country, all but three of which are multiplexes. It has courted and promoted Indian films enthusiastically. It was one of the sponsors of the London Indian Film Festival this year, which showcased over a dozen indie films in July.
And yet, after announcing that it would screen Shoojit Sircar’s thriller Madras Cafe the day it opened in India, Cineworld withdrew the film, citing “customer feedback”. In a statement the company said its policy is “to show a wide range of films for different audiences”, but it would not reveal what the feedback was, which had prompted the commercially incomprehensible decision. (In its first four days, according to reports, Madras Cafe took in Rs24 crore in India).
How could Cineworld have received customer feedback before the film’s release, given that only the British Board of Film Classification had seen it, giving it a “15” rating, which means children below that age could not see the film (nor rent or buy it at a store)? Cineworld declined to comment, leaving one to surmise that it wanted to avoid trouble from Tamil viewers who claimed the film showed them in a bad light.
In responding the way it did, Cineworld acted as if its multiplexes were in Chennai, not Cheltenham, or Madurai, not Manchester. By letting a few decide for the many, it has now set a precedent. I asked Cineworld if—hypothetically—Borat, LOC Kargil, or Waltz With Bashir were to be shown for the first time, would the company seek feedback from Kazakhs, Pakistanis, or Israelis first? (Cineworld again declined to comment). What would theatres show then: Pocahontas, Mulan, and The Lion King? But what if native Americans, Chinese, and Kenyans objected?
As a private business, Cineworld can indeed set its own rules about what it would and would not show. But a film theatre also serves a public purpose. The appropriate analogy here is with a bookshop. When Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, several bookshops were bombed, including in London, York, and High Wycombe, and unexploded bombs were found at shops in other towns. Publishers and translators were threatened and attacked; but many bookshops in the UK, the US, and elsewhere displayed the novel prominently, even in the face of violent threats. A consortium of publishers co-published the novel’s paperback edition.
Granted that Madras Cafe is not The Satanic Verses, but the principle is similar. The film’s artistic merit—or not—is irrelevant. Those who wish to see it, should be able to do so. We are talking of Cardiff, not Coimbatore; Nottingham, not Nagapattinam. But there is some logic to Cineworld’s decision: if the minorities haven’t assimilated and live in their own circumscribed ghettos, real or imaginary, commercial establishments will tread the space warily. Underlying is the assumption that minorities are different: with strange politics and inscrutable discourse. Rather than emphasizing the universal applicability of what are charmingly appropriated as British values—free speech and thought, and open access to culture—many prefer to avoid confronting the issue. Certain that liberal voices would defend them, theatres here have shown films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary, Ron Howard’s Da Vinci Code, Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, even though the films may have upset many devout Christians. But when Madras Cafe offends the Tamils, or Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s 2004 play Behzti (Dishonour) upsets the Sikhs in Birmingham, those performances are cancelled. It is as if there are two sets of laws and responses—one for the majority, one for the minority.
Britain traces its commitment to free speech to John Milton’s powerful 1644 speech, Areopagitica. The Duke of Wellington supposedly said “Publish and be damned,” when he was threatened with blackmail. That hoary past has reinforced the view among some that free expression is Western civilization’s gift to humanity—even if its notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel law (now due to be amended) cast a chill on many publishers, writers, and editors. Under the pretext of multiculturalism, the establishment has let loud, self-appointed leaders among minorities to speak on behalf of the many. Such acquiescence disempowers alternate voices, and a uniting, affirmative agenda that can support freedom, collapses.
Tamils who feel hurt by the film should seize the moment and inform the British public of the horrors of that war and seek justice for the crimes against humanity the Sri Lankan government stands accused of having committed. That goal honours the victims, not this battle with a Bollywood entertainer.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi