Home >Opinion >Columns >This is a better way to ask the government to stay off cinema

Some adults actually put heads together to draft this proposal, and it is not worth the sweet tea they may have had during their meetings. Their plan is to amend an existing law so that if anyone objects to a film that has been cleared for public viewing, its certification issued by the censor board would be put to a review, maybe even cancelled, making the film unworthy for public consumption overnight. If you want any justice in this country, you have to suffer long years in court, but if you are offended by a film, you get express service—you don’t have to go to court, just say you’re offended and the government will step in.

Why is the Indian government doing stuff like this? With so many real problems that need to be solved in this nation, even within the entertainment industry, why devote resources to what films contain? Why create suffocating rules? Why ruin the industry with all this uncertainty over the fate of every film? But this is exactly how you must not argue with this government.

It is apparent that the government wants to control everything. In response, the way our artists protest against an impending public policy, however, you would think they are talking to Nani Palkhivala. They are not up against a constitutional expert. While fine points of principle may have some effect in courts, they need a different set of arguments to persuade the government.

Imagine you are talking to a shrewd Indian merchant about why you deserve a fair deal—what will you say?

You will build a non-ethical argument in your favour. You will not use words like ‘institution’ or ‘principles’. But before that, you would want to understand, clearly, what your interlocutor wants.

Why is the government investing so much effort in controlling cinema and other forms of entertainment? Just a few months ago, it had expressed a wish to regulate streaming channels. Now this.

The government has justified its cinema proposal by saying that the Constitution “imposes reasonable restrictions upon the freedom of speech and expression in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India…public order, decency or morality…" This official reason may be just a secondary motivation, but it is sufficient to obtain public support. Indians in general do not rate artistic freedom very highly as they do not fully realize how they are beneficiaries of this liberty. They would prefer that uncomfortable things are not said about their religion and caste, for example, and so would like all religions and castes to be considered sacred. Also, an unknowably large number of Indians seem to assign a high value to sex by making everything about it, including its portrayals, very difficult for everyone.

The existence of a minor moral reason is very advantageous for the state’s larger hidden motive.

What are the potential consequences of this proposal becoming law? Filmmakers who are critical of the government could be harassed and its supporters favoured. Eventually, critical voices would be too risky for big investments, inspiring everyone to keep shut.

Over the past few years, most popular filmmakers and actors have either stayed away from politics or aligned themselves with the powers. But a few, like Anurag Kashyap and the actor Siddharth have been very critical of the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party. If the proposal becomes law, they may find it hard to attract work. Modern India has not eliminated free speech; it has eliminated the space for high rewards from free speech.

If the proposal goes through, the entire mainstream film industry would suffer collateral damage. A smart government that seeks control should realize that too much of it with no pressure valves could prove counterproductive. Filmmakers tweeting their dissent is among the most benign forms of it for any government. It satisfies an urge and a market for it without shaking the foundations of official control.

Successful people, like filmmakers and actors, have much to lose. So their dissent is indeed brave, but they rarely ever cross a line. There is a limit to how much they are willing to lose. By virtue of being successful in the material world, they are beneficiaries of a stable order, of systems, and they operate within its bounds. But they also do the government a favour with their fame. They unknowingly overshadow and eclipse more potent forms of dissent. Just as in the material world the lucky few on top block the progress of geniuses at the bottom, so too in activism, the top rung suppresses the rise of dangerous activists. If successful people are muzzled, expressions of dissent could move from people who have much to lose to those who have nothing to lose.

The proposal could also wreck the film industry’s economics. What will happen if it becomes law is this: Unsure of what is safe for release, every film will be self-censored; many things that make a film delightful may go, all risky topics will vanish. As things stand, most films fail. It is very difficult to get people to go to theatres. They stay home and wait for a film to ‘drop’ free. Everyone today is like that character in an R.K. Narayan story who wonders why people climb a mountain to see a waterfall when the benevolent river takes the trouble of tumbling down.

Any further strangulation could kill commercial cinema. India should not take its film industry for granted. Many nations do not have their own cinema, at least as a modern mainstream cultural force. Hollywood imperialism has killed them, just as Hindi cinema had once killed Pakistan’s film industry.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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