On Wednesday evening, a single-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court rejected the anticipatory bail application of Aparna Purohit, Amazon Prime Video India's head of development. Purohit has been accused of promoting religious enmity by greenlighting the show Tandav, which premiered on Amazon’s video platform in early January.
A sternly-worded 20-page order by Justice Siddharth said “that in permitting streaming of a movie which is against the fundamental rights of the majority of citizens of this country, her fundamental right of life and liberty cannot be protected by grant of anticipatory bail to her.”
The rejection of a bail plea of one of India’s top creative executives employed by one of the world’s most profitable companies, sends out a chilling message to India’s artistic community, a majority of which has already bent backwards to explicitly endorse the divisive, hateful politics of the Modi government.
There’s a rising culture of fear and paranoia within the corridors of studios and streaming firms as under-production shows go back to the rewriting stage while those ready face an indefinite delay.
In his observations, Justice Siddharth said that “Western filmmakers have refrained from ridiculing Lord Jesus or the Prophet, but Hindi filmmakers have done this repeatedly and still doing this most unabashedly with Hindu Gods and Goddesses.”
This is inaccurate as there are dozens of examples in Hollywood where the abuses of the Catholic Church as well as regressive Islamic practises have been called out or looked at from an interrogative lens, whether it’s through satire or criticism.
From The Family Guy to South Park to the more recent, Emmy-nominated series Ramy which shows the imperfections of religion clashing with the imperfections of millennial morality, Western liberal democracies have a long and rich history of critiquing conservatism.
Let's look at how films made in Islamic countries have questioned the regressive aspects of the religion. Iranian filmmaker Jaffar Panahi's cinema. Be it This Is Not a Film, The White Baloon or The Circle, all these films have been explicitly critical of Iran's regressive ideals. Then there are Asghar Farhadi and Abbas Kiarostami, filmmakers who blossomed during Iran's repressive regime.
Not to forget a recent film from Saudi Arabia called Barkha Meets Barkha, which showed the affects of an autocratic state on a young couple trying to find love.
Meanwhile, in his observation on the Tandav FIR, the judge further noted, “the fact remains that the applicant had not been vigilant and has acted irresponsibly making her open to criminal prosecution…”
While it’s true that the film industry has had a turbulent relationship with censorship and every regime has abused its powers to suppress free expression, it’s also true that Indian artists have traditionally stood up for their rights and the courts have protected their interests. The deafening silence of the film industry when one of their own faces the threat of arrest is shameful, to put it mildly.
Whether it was Deepa Mehta’s Fire, which depicted a queer romance, Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab that exposed bureaucratic complicity in fuelling Punjab’s drug crisis or Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Mohalla Assi, which was a biting critique on the commercialisation of the pilgrimage town of Varanasi, the Indian State has always sought the cover of culture to asphyxiate ideas that seek to challenge the status quo and offer a contrarian view on popular morality. This form of cultural terrorism has now morphed into protecting India’s ‘international image’ which is apparently under siege by, well, studio executives.
Historically, the country’s courts have upheld the rights of artistic freedom and offered a secured passage of release, including to the films mentioned in Justice Siddharth’s observations: P.K, Padmaavat, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela and Oh My God (only two of which satirised religion).
When majoritarian forces seek to homogenise culture by acting as its self-appointed guardians, it’s up to the institutions of art, literature, comedy, music and cinema to actively push back as it threatens their very livelihood. But to concede a democratic space of free expression, one which directly affects your job, without putting up a collective fight, is not just heartbreaking, it’s as bad as siding with your own oppressors.
However, there’s another side to this. Just a few years ago, the biggest hurdle in a film’s release, as far as Bollywood was concerned, was a middle-aged man named Pahlaj Nihalani, the then chief of the CBFC. Filmmakers would be most anxious about arbitrary cuts and the long, arduous process of appealing to the Revising Committee and then, the FCAT, which operated out of Delhi. There was, at the very least, faith the filmmakers had in these bodies that provided remedies to the whimsical diktats of an ill-qualified boomer.
What’s happening now is that the faith in the democratic institutions designed to protect the interests of the most vulnerable is getting increasingly eroded.
The whispers in Bollywood, that once would be about standing up to the Censor Board and fighting the good fight, have turned into preemptively avoiding subjects that could trigger the organised hate factory, operated by the BJP. You wouldn’t need a censor board to police streaming content because the industry is already on its way to doing it preemptively.
Informal conversations within Bollywood indicate that producers are reluctant to touch subjects that have a religious or political backdrop while artists who’re politically vocal, find it increasingly difficult to get work. The few directors who’d speak are uncharacteristically quiet as their films are currently under production while some are awaiting a release on streaming platforms.
The barometer of a democracy’s health is how safe and free its fiercest critics are. However, as the Aparna Purohit’s case tells us, from looking at the institutions of the State to protect their interests to protecting oneself from those very institutions, we’ve come a long way in a short time where independent thought is policed, creators face criminal prosecution, and hate speech is incentivised. While many tend to think that the government targeting films and filmmakers is an attempt to distract from the ‘real issues’ that’s not entirely true: controlling culture and driving the film industry into absolute submission is very much at the core of the BJP’s ideological project.
And given how many sarkaari pamphlets we’ve seen masquerading as cinema, it’s getting dangerously closer to its goals.
(This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)
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