Let me start flowing ink from my pen by first and foremost stating that while clearing the way for the nationwide release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmaavat, the Supreme Court on January 18 stayed the notification issued by Gujarat and Rajasthan prohibiting the screening of the film and restraining other states from issuing such notifications. This film which is starring Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor is scheduled for nationwide release on January 25. The producers of the movie, Viacom 18, approached the Apex Court for the second time challenging respective orders issued by the States to stall the screening of the movie citing law and order situation. Those opposing the film are upset over a rumoured romantic scene, presumably a dream sequence between Padukone acting as Queen Padmavati and Ranveer Singh acting as Alauddin Khilji and this charge is denied by the director Bhansali!
While craving for the exclusive indulgence of my esteemed readers, let me inform them that the Apex Court also asked the states to provide security to the film crew if they ask for it. In an interim order, a Bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud said that, “We direct that there shall be a stay of operation on the notification and order issued and we also restrain other states from issuing such notifications or orders in this matter.” The Apex Court prima facie accepted the petitioners contention that once the Central Board of Film Certification has cleared a movie, states cannot interfere with it.
For my esteemed readers exclusive indulgence, let me also inform them that the top court of India that is Supreme Court made it absolutely clear to the States who had banned or were planning to ban the film Padmaavat that, “Once the Parliamentary legislation confers the responsibility and power on a statutory board and board grants certificate, non-exhibition of it by states will be contrary to statutory provisions.” Rejecting the contention that the film’s screening will cause law and order problems, the Supreme Court said that , “It was the duty and obligation of states to maintain law and order.” Very rightly said!
Let me say this direct: How can the States run away from their primary duty of providing security to the film which has been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification? It is their bounden duty to provide security to the film wherever and whenever it is shown in their areas of jurisdiction! How can they abdicate their duty?
Needless to say, they can’t just raise their hands and say that, “No, we can’t provide security. We have to respect the people opinion and allow them to do what they like to stop the release of the film shows in different cinema halls”. The most worrisome part about this whole unseemly controversy has been that those who are protesting most vocally against this film have not even seen the film themselves! The States were directed explicitly by the Supreme Court to maintain law and order and provide requisite security to the artists, who performed in the film upon their specific request.
It must be brought out here that senior and eminent advocate Harish Salve very rightly while arguing for the film producers submitted that if States begin to use law and order as a tool to ban screening of the film, the federal relations envisaged under the Cinematograph Act will be destroyed. The film has already received U/A certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) after a body of experts involving historians recommended several cuts and even asked the producers to change the name of the movie from “Padmavati” to “Padmaavat”. Why then should it not be shown?
Let me also be direct in asking: Why should fringe groups be allowed to have the last laugh? What message are the states sending by completely succumbing in front of them? Are such groups above the law of the land? If not, how can they be allowed to indulge in moral policing?
It must also be brought out here that Salve pointed out that states had no right to control content. He also pointed out that all that has been done out of respect to the Committee which considered balancing the freedom of speech and expression with the sensitivities of a particular community attached with the movie. Despite all this, Salve rued that, “If an executive Government of a State says I will throw the certificate issued by the Censor Board into the dustbin, this is lawlessness and suggests breakdown of law in the State. It is a Constitutional breakdown.” What wrong has Salve said? Who can dispute or deny what Salve has said so rightly?
No surprise then that the Bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud remarked that, “If a film like Bandit Queen could pass the test of the SC, why not ‘Padmaavat’?” CJI Dipak Misra also said that, “Whether a film is a box office bomb or a flop, whether distributors buy the film or not, we are not concerned. When the right to freedom of speech and expression, which is inseparable from making a film or enacting street theatre is guillotined, my constitutional concern gets aroused. Artistic and creative expressions have to be protected.”Again, which right minded person will dispute or deny this?
No prizes for guessing then that the Bench also minced no words in conveying its unambiguous message loud and clear that, “A spectre of fear cannot be allowed to prevail under the Constitution.” It asserted that in a country governed by rule of law, fringe groups could never be permitted to hold filmmakers to ransom. It recalled the Apex Court’s judgment clearing the release of Prakash Jha’s film ‘Aarakshan’ to tell all states, especially the four which have banned ‘Padmaavat’, to discharge their constitutional obligation and deal firmly with law and order issues.
It must be added here that the Bench also made it explicitly clear while prohibiting states from banning films that, “A film may bomb at the box office or people may choose to not watch it, but states cannot use their machinery to prohibit its exhibition citing risk. It is not your discretion. It is your duty to provide security. Creative freedom, freedom of speech and expression can’t be guillotined…artistic freedom has to be protected. The whole problem is when exhibition of a film is stopped like this, my constitutional conscience shocks me.” CJI Dipak Misra further went on to add eloquently that, “The whole problem is when exhibition of a film is stopped like this, my constitutional conscience shocks me.” Absolutely right!
Let me hasten to add here that those who don’t like the film are free not to watch the film. Who is forcing or compelling them to watch the film? But no person or group whether fringe or any other group has any right in a democratic country like India to impose his/her views forcibly on others and stop others from watching any film just because he/she feels that it offends their caste, religion , race, community etc!
It is noteworthy that the Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who appeared for the BJP ruled States of Gujarat and Rajasthan made passionate plea for banning the film but it did not cut ice with the Bench. Tushar said that, “The Censor Board does not know the law and order situation in the States while granting approval for screening a film. We have specific Intelligence inputs threatening breach of public order.” His fervent appeals were turned away as the court recounted several works of literature in the form of drama, films and books that passed muster of Supreme Court in the interest of protecting free speech and expression of citizens.
To put things in perspective, Mehta quipped, “Freedom of expression cannot be allowed to distort history. History cannot be distorted in a manner to show Mahatma Gandhi sipping whisky.” The CJI disagreed with Mehta’s contention that the state could take action if there is a rumour against a majority community. Responding to Mehta’s arguments, CJI rightly said, “If you go by this, 60 percent of literature, even classical literature of India, cannot be read.” Salve rightly retorted that a work of fiction in the West titled “Jesus Christ-Superstar” which passed the test despite harming the sentiments of Christians. Salve quipped: “That’s not even distortion of history. In the West, they could even make “Jesus Christ Super Star”, a movie based on a rock opera that retells the story of Jesus Christ.” Salve rightly urged that, “The States have power under the Licensing Act to impose restriction on theatres but they can’t touch its content. That power is with Centre alone. The Union Government should direct States to comply with SC decision rather than come out in support of their ban.”
To be sure, CJI referred to the Kalidasa’s epic on Nala and Damayanti and said it was once translated by an Odisha scholar. But the scholar was a puritan. He left out some parts, saying he doesn’t think it should be read now. The scholar, the CJI said, was born in the 19th century and was influenced by Victorian morality.
Going forward, Salve mentioned Lady Chatterley’s Lover and said it was still selling inspite of being banned. To this, the CJI remarked that in the Seventies, those who had not read the book were considered ill-qualified to discuss some topics. As a Judge of the Delhi High Court, he said, he had dismissed a petition which sought a ban on the film Dhobi Ghat. Their plea, he said, was that it would disturb public order.
Be it noted, the CJI also cited the case of Sakharam Binder which is a Marathi play by Vijay Tendulkar that was banned in India in 1974. He also mentioned instances of courts upholding freedom of expression by refusing to ban books like The Men Who Killed Gandhi and Gandhi: Naked Ambition. Justice Chandrachud also recalled his own experience when the Marathi play Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy was sought to be banned by the state. The argument, he said, was that it would disturb public order.
Most happy to note that the Bench of Supreme Court also made it clear that, “Creative content is an inseparable aspect of Article 19 of the Constitution (fundamental right to speech). Expression of ideas through the medium of cinema is a public right.” The Apex Court directed all responses to be filed by the next date of hearing fixed on March 26. The Supreme Court also refused to entertain a fresh petition to quash the CBFC certificate granted to the movie Padmaavat, a day after it pulled up four states for banning the film’s release despite clearance from the Censor Board. Lastly and most importantly, all these states are now duty bound after this landmark order to abide by the directives of the Supreme Court and make sure that the film is released smoothly and no one is allowed to take law and order in his/her own hands under any circumstances!
By Sanjeev Sirohi