The row over Vishwaroopam comes to an end – but is the end ?

So, after some delay, the movie is going to be released. Kamal Haasan got into a dialog with the organizations that were looking for a change in the movie (the removal of a few scenes), and finally the issue was resolved with the actor agreeing to the changes and hence the movie would now be released in a few days. There will need to probably be a few formalities, such as the censor board agreeing to the changes and after that, the movie would be okay for release. There was some amount of anger over the whole debate, but most of the debate did not matter to the principal stakeholders, these being Kamal Hasan, the Muslim organizations, the Tamil Nadu Government, and the judiciary. Not one of them has covered themselves with glory in this particular case, and caused some pretty bad precedents that ‘will’ be used by others later as well. In this entire incident, the censor board has been totally bypassed, and the Union Government to a large degree. And the non involvement by the Supreme Court means that the last decision of the High Court will continue to set precedents.
So what happened ? Kamal Haasan made a huge movie about terrorism, and since terrorism in India is a touchy subject, especially when there is any mention of religion in it, any movie is bound to be controversial. India has terrorism of different types, whether these be the ULFA (who are Hindu), the other groups in the North East (from different religions, but who base themselves on region rather than religion), the Maoists (who again are Hindus), the terrorist problem in Punjab (now crushed, but which was primarily Sikh based), Jammu and Kashmir terrorism (Muslim based), along with free ranging terrorists who try to attack inside cities (who are Muslim based). The worst rap has come to terrorists who claim to be fighting in the name of Islam (also because the terrorists are to some extent across boundaries), and it is fairly certain that most movies about terrorists will base themselves on Islamic terrorists.

The scary thing about the current situation was that the movie was cleared by the censor board, the basic understanding is that, once a movie has been cleared by the censor board, state governments cannot stop such a movie. The courts of course can get involved at any part of the process, but in the past, the Supreme Court has made it clear that once the censor board clears a movie, it really does not appreciate interference post that. Here, some Muslim organizations complained to the Jayalalitha Government about the movie being most probably biased, and though most people thought that this would get ignored, it was shocking to see that the state Government played along and issued orders to all the districts that the movie would not be released under threat of a law and order problem / risk. I remember a previous order many years back where the Court ordered the Delhi Government to remove polluting industries, and when the Govt claimed that there could be a law and order issue, it was struck down pretty badly (the statements ignoring the concerns were to the effect that if the Govt could not handle law and order to implement an order, then it should step down).
The next steps were even more problematic. A single judge declined to immediately strike down the ban, wanting to see the movie. So, now, a movie first needs to be cleared by the censor board and then by judges who will also professionally decide whether the movie can be released. Finally when the ban was over-turned, it was a short term relief. The State Govt appealed to a larger bench, which stayed the previous order, meaning in effect that the ban was fine. This was shocking. This meant that the state could ban a movie which it did not like or where it was under pressure, and the courts might go along. My next thought about this was the movie OMG (Oh My God) would have offended a number of Hindu religious organizations, and the next time a movie like this comes along, they will site this as a precedent to ask for a ban of the movie, and who will oppose this then ?
Kamal Hassan in the end backed down, deciding to make the changes. I don’t blame him. The movie cost a huge amount, and he needed to do whatever was required to get the movie released. But as to the rest of us, the whole setup reeks very badly, and I was particularly disappointed at the role played by the judiciary in the whole sequence.

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