Bollywood May Not Fight Back, But We Should

The attacks on creative expression and freedom of speech concern us all. Today it is films and books; tomorrow it could be journalism and much more.


Once again, the producers of a Hindi film have capitulated to pressure and threats to cut out ‘objectionable’ scenes from a Hindi film. Acting on the instructions of the Bombay high court, the makers of Jolly LLB 2, a satire on the country’s judicial system, have agreed to cut out four scenes. They had gone to the Supreme Court to challenge the order, but then withdrew their appeal, agreeing to delete the scenes to meet the release deadline of February 10.

It needs to be pointed out that the Central Board for Film Certification had passed the film uncut. It was only after an advocate filed suit saying that the film mocked the legal profession – he also wanted ‘LLB’ dropped from the title – that the court entered the picture. The plaintiff had not seen the film (the trailer was apparently enough for him to know that lawyers had been made fun of) but the court appointed a three member committee to watch the film and their suggestions were to delete four specific scenes. Are these three experts on cinema? We have no idea. Did they frown at scenes making fun of lawyers? Probably.

The producers might well argue that after the high court’s order they had little choice in the matter, especially if they had to release the film on the appointed date. Much money is at stake and it is better to reach a compromise rather than lose that investment. They have a point. But it is equally true that the industry has made it a habit of giving in to threats and blackmail. And this is encouraging all kinds of malcontents, disgruntled elements and publicity-seekers, and perhaps a few blackmailers too, who get their few seconds in the limelight.

Two recent cases are good examples of the industry’s pusillanimity and tendency to cave in. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, after being roughed up by the valorous Karni Sena – out to defend the honour of a mythical princess by bashing up an unarmed film director, swiftly reached a compromise with his attackers. His own lead actress, Deepika Padukone, instead of criticising the violence and its perpetrators, tried to assuage their feelings by saying that there was nothing offensive in the film, which is still in the process of being made.

Earlier, Karan Johar, who had cast a Pakistani actor in his film – and done so, as he pointed out, when relations between the two countries were warming up – had to declaim his patriotism in a video and cough up a tidy sum of Rs 5 crores to the Army Welfare Fund after a threat from Raj Thackeray. Thackeray’s men had threatened to stop the film from being released; the ‘compromise’ was worked out by Devendra Fadnavis, chief minister of Maharashtra.

In other words, even if a filmmaker were to stand his ground, he can expect no support from the state and its institutions. Or, sadly, from the courts. Ever since the Supreme Court’s clear 1989 ruling in Oru Oru Gramathile, it has been settled law that the complaints of hyper-sensitive individuals cannot trump the clearance duly granted to a film by the CBFC. Yet, instead of throwing out the case against Jolly LLB 2, the honourable judge decided to take a call on it.

In the case of Karan Johar, Maharashtra’s chief minister engineered what he thought was a win-win situation, though his job was to ensure the safe release of the film. And the Jaipur police declared that the filmmaker had assured them that he would stop shooting.  Even so, there are instances of filmmakers refusing to cow down. Anuraag Kashyap, whose company made Udta Punjab, took on the censor chief Pahlaj Nihalani after the board demanded many cuts. Kashyap won the legal challenge and the film was released with far fewer deletions.

Expecting unity from Bollywood is pointless; they will not stand up for their own. But it is wrong to see this as just Bollywood’s problem. The attacks on creative expression and freedom of speech concern us all. Such threats have a chilling effect on society as a whole. We have to now contend not just with mischief-makers but also the softness of state institutions towards them. Today it is films and books; tomorrow it could be journalism and much more. It is imperative that we resist this encroachment on one of our most cherished values.