The West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s decision to ban The Kerala Story has once again sparked debates about artistic freedom, censorship, and political motivations. The movie, panned by most critics for being a propaganda tool for the current regime, has ignited a political firestorm, with contrasting reactions taken by governments run by the opposition and the BJP. Some of the latter have declared the movie tax-free.
West Bengal is the only state to have officially banned the movie – a decision many think has more to do with garnering political support from a specific community than the official reason of “maintaining public order”. The decision, as expected is being challenged in court by the producer and director. Earlier, the Kerala high court had refused to stay the release of the film.
However, Mamata Banerjee, a political veteran, has already scored a point. She is sending out a message to one of her biggest support bases, the Muslim community, sections of which have in recent times been perceived to be shifting away from her party. With panchayat poll due, and general elections less than a year away, Banerjee knows she can’t afford that.
The Kerala Story has given her an opportunity to appease the sentiments of the Muslim electorate by taking action against a film that allegedly hurt religious sentiments. With her party facing serious corruption charges and multiple ministers behind bars, this move reflects her efforts to reclaim her image as a protector of minority interests and regain the trust of Muslim voters. Simultaneously, this move effectively diverts attention from issues of corruption and governance, which have been a matter of contention for the TMC.
Predictably, this has given fresh ammunition to the BJP’s most prominent face in West Bengal, Suvendu Adhikari, Banerjee’s once protégé turned bête noire. The BJP leader has framed the ban as a reflection of Mamata Banerjee’s alleged support for radicalisation. With the ban on The Kerala Story inadvertently leading to the Streisand effect, a phenomenon in which attempts to suppress information or art only amplify its reach and impact, the discussion in the streets is shifting from corruption to religious binary.
Interestingly, the binary politics of religious polarisation have proven beneficial to both the TMC and the BJP – as seen in the 2019 and 2021 polls in West Bengal. By framing the political discourse in terms of religious identity and protection, both parties have succeeded in mobilising their respective voter bases. This binary simplifies complex socio-political issues like corruption, violence and unemployment and creates a sense of ‘us versus them’ among voters, leading to heightened polarisation and increased support for the two parties.
It is worth noting that another right-wing propaganda movie, The Kashmir Files, did not face similar restrictions in West Bengal . Released in 2022, a year without any major elections in the state, the film had a successful commercial run. It did spark violence – an argument put forward by Banerjee to justify the banning of The Kerala Story. She also took a swipe at Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s failure to ban the movie in his state, despite knowing that the government there did seek legal intervention to delay its release. The bitter rivalry between Banerjee and Vijayan’s CPI(M) in West Bengal and her apprehension of losing the Muslim community’s support to the party may have played a role in her decision.
It’s ironical that 2023 marks the birth centenary of famed Bengali film director Mrinal Sen, whose film Nil Akasher Niche holds the distinction of being the first film to be banned in India. Released in 1959, it depicted the struggles of the working class and was deemed politically sensitive and threatening by the government.
Six decades on, the intersection of politics and cinema continues to shape the narrative of artistic expression in India. Earlier this year, the Indian government banned the BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The supporters of BJP, with tacit approval from the top leadership, have been quite frequent in their demand for boycott or banning of films featuring Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan. It underscores the potential influence of electoral considerations, party rivalries, and the competition for specific voter demographics in shaping decisions related to the banning or screening of movies.
Aparna Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based political analyst with experience in campaign strategy, communication and public affairs. She is co-founder of Populytix, a data analysis and market research firm.