The ban on Kamal Haasan’s film Vishwaroopam in Tamil Nadu by the State government has pushed the spotlight on the Censor Board, and questions its authority as it plays an active part in the release of a film. Vishwaroopam finally released amidst heavy police security following a three-week delay, but not after having incurred around ` 90 crore loss. Though the controversy raged majorly in the South, those in Hindi film industry did not keep quiet. They debated the randomness of an act that curbed creativity, while some like Salman Khan vociferously came out in support of the veteran film-maker and actor by holding screenings of Vishwaroop, the Hindi version of the film.
Most when asked said that when a film has been certified by the Censor Board, no one has the authority to stop the film’s release. “Once the Censor Board passes a movie that should be litmus test for the film’s certificate. The Censor Board has, in fact, decreed that after that no one can stop the release of a film. And I do firmly believe in this policy. Kamal Haasan has every right to feel that injustice has been done to him on that count as Censor Board should be the final authority to decide whether a film has to be screened in the theatres or not,” opines Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO, Disney UTV, having faced a similar situation earlier when Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) supporters tried to halt the screening of UTV Motion Pictures’ films like Wake Up Sid for using the word ‘Bombay’ instead of ‘Mumbai’. UTV also faced another instance of arm-twisting with Jodhaa Akbar when controversy raged over Jodha being the daughter-in-law of Akbar, and not his wife. Kapur also cites the case of Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan where the Supreme Court decreed that once a film has been passed by the Censor Board, the state authorities are supposed to be taking the onus of ensuring that the film gets a proper release.
Anjum Rajabali, Central Board of Film Certification’s (CBFC) official spokesperson seconded Kapur’s views. “The CBFC is a specialised body with the statutory authority to examine films, to see if they fall within the guidelines laid out for cinema meant for public exhibition,” says Rajabali adding. “These guidelines try to strike a healthy balance between protecting the freedom of creative expression of film-makers and the social responsibility that they have in being sensitive to the sentiments and beliefs of different communities.” Citing Aarakshan as a case in point, he says, “What happened with Vishwaroopam should never have been allowed. There are so many clear precedents where the Supreme Court has categorically declared that no State Government has the right to pre-empt a ban on any film. Even in case of Aarakshan, the SC’s order was unequivocal that it is the job of the state government to to maintain law and order if there is any perceived threat of violent protests breaking out on a film’s release. And if indeed, after the film’s release, it is not possible to control the reactions, then pulling the film off the theatres could be considered,” he explains.
Given the backdrop, the ban on the film was perhaps the last thing to cross Haasan’s mind when he conceived Vishwaroopam.
Was the ban justified?
Controversy began to rage when Haasan decided to release the film on Direct-To-Home (DTH) despite protests from theatre owners all over the country followed by another controversy where a few Muslim outfits alleged that it portrayed the community in a negative light. Such was the effect of the controversy, the film was banned in places like Chennai, Kerala, Hyderabad and UP.
“It was wrong on Kamal Haasan’s part to insist on a DTH release,” says Manoj Desai of G7 cinemas who supported Haasan’s decision initially. “It was the decision to premiere on DTH that caused the delay in the release of the film more than anything else.” While many said the ban was unacceptable as the film has been cleared by the Censor Board, the final word in clearing a film, Vishwaroopam has faced the flak on many fronts and triggered off many questions — Can a film be affected by a handful of people? Isn’t there an authoritative body to control such activities? How does the government control such illegalities?
Rajabali is of the opinion that since India is a hugely diverse country where many groups from different communities and castes co-exist, it is important to exercise freedom of expression with responsibility. On that count this particular Board, he reiterates, is perhaps the most progressive one seen in the recent past. “I haven’t seen the film so I cannot personally comment on whether there is any aspect that I believe may or may not be hurtful to the feelings of Muslims. However, I know how rigorous the CBFC procedure is and would put all my faith in their decision.”
Rajabali also adds that when these groups approached the Tamil Nadu government to ban the film, the latter should have refused. “Even after the judge lifts the ban after watching the film, the two-judge bench overturns that order without even seeing the film! I’m sorry to harp upon this, but if a statutory body has been created for a particular purpose, then its credibility should be acknowledged and its authority respected. Unfortunately, we have just too many knee-jerk reactions from film-makers when a decision goes against their wishes. In their frustration, they begin immediately attributing ulterior motives to the CBFC’s decisions, questioning its ideology, calling it conservative and such. Such occurrences, frequent as they are, tend to repeatedly undermine the position of CBFC,” he says.
Release and after
When his home state Chennai also banned the film, Haasan threatened to move Supreme Court against the State Government’s ban on the screening. He had the support of some of his colleagues when the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa initiated a resolution on the ban, making both Kamal and his producer brother Chandra Haasan to agree to the decision taken by their government. And since the decision was fortunately in their favour, the film was released all over after a delay of three weeks. “Incidents like this cause immense loss to the producer and leads to piracy,” states Kapur.
Ekta Kapoor, head honcho of Balaji Motion Pictures that distributed Vishwaroop, says, “We have given the Hindi version, the best possible release. The film has generated tremendous buzz. We are happy to support the film and Kamalji in our own way.” Tanuj Garg, CEO, Balaji Motion Pictures, says further, “Vishwaroop is a nationwide revolution. People are sick of this idiotic banning virus that is spreading at an alarming rate. The film has released and bagged outstanding acclaim. Balaji is glad to have been associated with the film’s Hindi version as the national distributor!”
The delay in the release of Vishwaroop and the controversy surrounding it seemed to have taken its toll going by the not-so-great opening of the film. Girish Wankhede, Head of Marketing at Cinemax, opines that when a film gets postponed, it may confuse the audience initially, but the content of a film finally decides the outcome. “The ban may have affected the exhibitors or producers, but for the audience it is content that matter. If the film is good, it’ll pick up, but if the film does not have the charm or sustainability, then irrespective of controversy, the film will not gain anything,” he states. Desai, on the other hand, informs, “People were scared to venture into the theatres because of the police bandobast. But those who came to see the film, went about watching the film fearlessly despite the presence of the police. I am happy with the way the film has done at my theatres, Gaiety, Galaxy as well as Maratha Mandir in Mumbai.”
Regal Cinema is another single screen that saw a decent opening when the film released on February 1. Parmeswaran Pillai, Manager of Regal says that the film had a decent opening with 331 people in the audience. This, he reasons, was because of the police bandobast and was positive that the film would pick up during the weekend. “During the release of My Name Is Khan too, our cinema had a police protection. It was Shiv Sena who tried to hamper the film’s release then, and now some Muslim organisations that tried to do that with Vishwaroop. We had police inside as well as outside the theatre, so people were not scared when they came to see the film,” he informs.
Vishwaroop also had a decent opening at Cinemax’s multiplexes franchise all over. “Postponing the release may have cost the distributors and producers huge losses, estimated to be around ` 90 crores. But we cannot write off a passionately made film,” says Wankhede, believes that the controversy helped generate curiousity and is optimistic that the film will gain momentum in the coming days.
Talking about the loss in the collections because of the delay in its release, Pillai is positive that with word-of-mouth publicity, the business will gradually pick up. “The number of star ratings in the reviews will also help the film. Moreover, Kamal Haasan is still a craze,” he reminds.