Back in the 1990s, freedom of expressionwallahs slammed Mani Ratnam when he arranged a private screening of Bombay for Bal Thackeray. The film had been cleared for release by the censor board but Ratnam sought the OK of the “highest authority in Bombay” because it had a character modelled after the Shiv Sena supremo.
Something quite similar has happened with Sonia-Sonia, a film reportedly based on the life of Sonia Gandhi. The film got a ‘U’ certificate from the censors in December 2005. But, stunningly, the censor board did not have belief in its own order. It asked the film-maker, Dinesh Kumar, to get a no-objection certificate from the Congress president!
Kumar claims he sent letters to her but did not receive a response. He urged the censors to consider the no-reply as an NOC and allow the release of the film. When the censor board did not relent, he approached the Bombay High Court, where finally, fortunately, the additional solicitor-general said the censor board was withdrawing the condition.
Still, the growing frequency with which hyper-sensitive, supra-constitutional figures with only a passing acquaintance with the law sit in judgment over books, works of art, films, music, etc—and how governments and figures of authority acquiesce in the name of public order—opens up a simple question: have we become so fully and completely intolerant that we have lost our sense of the free speech guarantee enshrined in Article 19 (1) (a)?
Like in a Manmohan Desai film, Narendra Modi and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Bal Thackeray and Sonia Gandhi and S.M. Krishna… all seem to be separated at birth, uniting just before the credits, for the same common objective—to stifle free speech.
Former attorney-general Soli Sorabjee provides some perspective on the Jodhaa Akbar controversy:
“In an article, Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence was condemned as pacifism born out of cowardice. A question arose before the Bombay high court regarding the action that may be taken against the writer. The high court in its judgment dated August 2, 1968 in the case of Anant Karandikar laid down certain important principles.
“It ruled that “merely because the criticism has been made of one whose memory is held dearly by millions of people would not be a ground for coming to the conclusion that the writer wanted to tarnish Mahatma Gandhi’s name”. The high court further observed that “it is the right and privilege of every thinker to express his judgment on historical events in a fearless manner… History is not to serve as the hand-maid of a particular school of thought”.