According to recent media reports Kamal Haasan may not approach the Supreme Court against the ban on the release of his movie Vishwaroopam restored by a Division Bench of the Madras High Court. The reason is Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s suggestion that Haasan should reach a settlement with the organisations which are supporting the ban about which portions or words in the movie should be deleted. In view of the prospect of differing judicial verdicts and the grave financial consequences which would ensue if the ban on the movie is sustained or not invalidated promptly, Haasan’s readiness to negotiate a settlement is understandable.
Settlements reached between parties are generally welcome provided no vital principles are compromised. In the present case, the movie Vishwaroopam was duly certified as fit for exhibition by the Central Board of Film Certification, a statutory body which had followed the requisite procedures under the Cinematograph Act. Agreeing to cuts or deletions demanded by certain bodies gives them in effect a veto power over the decision of the board. This lays down a bad precedent which would undermine the authority of the board. Besides, in the current environment of pervasive intolerance, hypersensitive persons discern offence in a particular scene or experience hurt in a statement where none is intended. In the present case, it is a Muslim group which demands a ban. Tomorrow it could be a Sikh or a Christian or any other organisation baying for a ban. If this banning itch is not curbed, freedom of expression will become a mirage and we will be reduced to the stage of reading or seeing only fairy tales meant for children.
If any group or body is dissatisfied with the board’s decision, it can adopt corrective remedies under the Act or file a writ petition in the high court. It is certainly not open to a dissatisfied party to threaten use of force or violence to stop the release of the movie. Far worse, it is for the state to justify the ban because of apprehension of breach of law and order. This issue was squarely decided on March 31, 1989, by the Supreme Court in the case of a movie Ore Oru Gramathile. In that case, the state’s plea was that in view of the threats of demonstrations and violence by certain organisations and political bodies who were offended by the theme of the movie, exhibition of the movie would create serious law and order problems and hence the ban. The Supreme Court was “amused yet troubled” by the state’s stand. Justice Jagannatha Shetty delivering the landmark judgment of the Court observed that “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation”. The court further held that “it is the duty of the State to protect the freedom of expression. The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression” which “cannot be held to ransom by an intolerant group of people”.
Another disquieting feature is the Advocate General Navaneetha Krishnan’s statement in the course of his oral arguments before the court that the “certification process is a scam”. Advocate Sankarasubbu appearing for the groups supporting the ban stated that “the board members are purchasable commodities”. These statements, unless they are based on cogent material placed before the court, are grossly defamatory and reprehensible. There are limits to an advocate’s licence pleading his case before the court even though the advocate may be the advocate general of the state, in which case there is a greater obligation to refrain from making unsubstantiated allegations against a statutory body headed by a distinguished chairperson. Mr Advocate General, please remember, noblesse oblige.
Sorabjee is a former Attorney General of India