In staying the notifications of four states banning the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s troubled film, Padmaavat, the Supreme Court rightly noted on Thursday that “valued Constitutional rights are at stake”. It remains to be seen now if the state governments will ensure that law and order is maintained or look the other way if protestors turn violent.
The issue is considerably bigger than one film, however. The Indian state has always been ambiguous about the freedom of artistic expression. The very idea of a censor board that can demand cuts instead of merely issuing a rating to films is testament to this. The logic, as expressed in a much less admirable 1989 Supreme Court ruling, is that “Censorship by prior restraint is... not only desirable but also necessary”.
The Shyam Benegal committee, in its 2016 report, had recommended limiting the censor board’s role to certifying films. This is the correct way forward. But nothing has happened since. The government, in fact, has no business playing any role here. It should cede the stage to an independent industry body.