India Bans Kamal Haasan’s Movie ‘Vishwaroopam’

India has a long history of censoring or banning films—from Jesus Christ Superstar in the 1970s to today. Praful Gangurde/Hindustan Times via Getty

Another day, another movie protested/banned/censored/take your pick. India is the world’s largest producer of feature films, their stars some of our biggest icons, their songs instant hits that are sung by youth all over the country. Yet India is also home to an inordinate number of people who take offense at scenes in films and want them cut. So vocal are they—clearly more vocal than free-speech advocates—and often so ready to threaten violence, that they usually get their way.

The most recent case is the Tamil film Vishwaroopam (Image of the World), apparently some kind of thriller about terrorism (no, I have not seen it). Some Muslim groups have protested, saying it has portrayed Muslims poorly and thus “hurt their sentiments.”

That last, it has always seemed to me, is an empty statement heard far too often and taken far too seriously. Instead of standing up to this bullying, the southern state of Tamil Nadu decided to ban the film, citing apprehension of law-and-order problems. Days later, with its makers frantic at losing out at the box office—Tamil Nadu, naturally, is the biggest market for a Tamil film—the filmmakers agreed to sit across a table with these Muslim groups. What emerged was a series of seven cuts to be made in the print.

Chalk up one more blow struck at the shaky edifice of free expression in India.

Speaking of which, I have personal experience of what such offense does to ordinary folks’ understanding of free expression. Some months ago, the film was Kamaal Dhamaal Malamaal (hard to translate—literally Wonder Fun Lottery, though the Vatican uses the title Laugh, Be Happy), apparently some kind of potboiler in which a Catholic priest is shown to be a lottery addict (no, I have not seen it). This time it was Christian groups who were offended, their sentiments hurt by such “blasphemy.” Even the Vatican took note. Of course there were cuts made.

Sometime in the middle of it all, Christian groups organized a protest rally against the film, starting at a church not far from where I live. The writer—and my buddy—Naresh Fernandes called with a suggestion: what about going there to register our protest against this protest? Especially because we both sport good Portuguese Catholic names (Fernandes, D’Souza). So we rustled up two quick handwritten posters and walked over to the church, arriving 15 minutes before the rally started. Time enough to try to talk to those present.

To start with, the protesters were welcoming and polite, almost to a fault. “Sure, you can have your point of view,” they said. “We’re completely open to differences in opinion,” they said. Naresh and I mingled with the congregation, expressing our points of view as best we could. All well, we thought.

Except it wasn’t long before we started getting dark looks. A woman pronounced loudly and pointedly that only those who agreed with the protest would be allowed to join the march—not that we intended to join anyway. Two young men moved through the crowd and then pushed past us, muttering under their breath about the need to gather “many” people to “give pasting.” (“Pasting”: Bombay Catholic slang for “thrashing.”) Was the mention of “many” a nod to our biceps that rippled, above our potbellies that jiggled?

When the procession began, we unfurled our posters and stood holding them above our heads. Politeness? Suddenly an endangered species. One of the young men stopped to shake his finger in my face, issuing this warning: “You better not even think about walking with us, or we’ll give you pasting!” The other strolled past, laughing theatrically. But then he ran back, now snarling, and leaped to grab and tear my poster (“SIMPLE: DON’T WATCH IT”)in two. Job done, he ran back to the procession, once again laughing theatrically.

Good Christians, no doubt. Just as those protesting Vishwaroopam are good Muslims, no doubt.

India Film Actress Pooja Kumar on the set of Vishwaroopam, which has created waves in India. Courtesy of Raajkamal Films

Seems these are times when far too many people appear to have settled into a particularly putrid pattern: search for ways to feel offended, then demand that the world take notice, take action. It would be tempting to think there was a time when folks did not act like this. Except that they always have. In the 1970s India’s censors refused to allow Jesus Christ Superstar to be shown in the country—for in it, Indian Christian groups asserted, Mary Magdalene displayed “carnal love” for Jesus Christ. This was unacceptable. In 1988 Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ attracted a brutal assault from Christian fundamentalists in Paris. Their bombs injured over a dozen people who were watching the film in a theater. In 1995 the director Mani Ratnam showed his film Bombay—a love story set against the 1992–93 riots in the city—to the late Shiv Sena chief and Hindu leader Bal Thackeray prior to its release. Thackeray demanded several cuts; among other things, he was angry that the film showed the character representing him expressing remorse for the riots. Why Ratnam should have shown Bombay to this man at all is a question worth asking, and in fact, Muslim groups asked it at the time. Note that they demanded their own cuts as well.

Vishwaroopam, then, is just another entry in a dismal list. Before reaching the compromise that spelled out the seven cuts he agreed to, the film’s producer, Kamal Haasan, made an almost tearful pronouncement. Threatening to move out of the state that has made him a superstar, Tamil Nadu, he said: “I am an artiste ... I will have to seek a secular state.”

Which state would that be, you have to wonder. Gujarat, which has banned films? Uttar Pradesh, which has banned films? Punjab, which has banned films? The filmmaker Harini Calamur has a list that makes for depressing reading. Yes, sir, Mr. Haasan, which of India’s states will you choose? Which of India’s administrations has ever shown the fiber to defend freedom of expression rather than succumb to bullies whose sentiments are easily hurt? Which state can you expect will protect, first and above all, your artistic freedom? I don’t know.

Not that I’m into blowing my own trumpet, but in the end it seems to me there is only one answer to all this. That answer lies in the words Naresh and I hastily scrawled on our poster that day at the church, the poster that so offended a passing protester. These words: SIMPLE: DON’T WATCH IT.