Vishwaroopam: It's time cinema stopped bowing down to bigots

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 24, 2013 06:54 hrs

​This Friday, as one of Kamal Haasan’s most-awaited films, Vishwaroopam, releases across India, his aficionados in Tamil Nadu will have to grind their teeth and wait, as the film’s theatrical release is postponed a second time. And to thank for that, we have a group of bigoted idiots, who sought out the government and claimed the film was offensive to their religion.

On the same day that the Madras High Court did away with the mandate that all plays must get the approval of the Commissioner of Police before being staged, the Government of Tamil Nadu bowed down to the bigoted idiots who believe the film portrays all Muslims as terrorists, and banned the release of the film for two weeks.

The way art and film are treated in this country makes it hard to believe we actually live in a democracy, ruled by governments that claim to be secular, guided by a Constitution that declares itself secular.

A few years ago, another bunch of fools, claiming to be the guardians of Indian culture – a culture that doesn’t believe in vaginas – protested against the staging of The Vagina Monologues in the city. The government obligingly banned it. Reading the play didn’t quite motivate me to watch it, but I find it outrageous that a group was prevented from staging it, because certain morons were offended by the word ‘vagina’ – clearly having forgotten their own passage into this world.

It’s ridiculous that even while aspiring to be on par with the world’s superpowers, India and its constituent states regularly cave in to one demand after the other from groups representing the interests of religious extremists.

Thanks to this spinelessness of our political class – call it nursing a vote bank, call it ensuring public safety, call it pandering to bigotry – art, represented by literature, drama and cinema, has been constantly  muzzled.

In the Eighties, India led the world in its vilification of Salman Rushdie, by banning The Satanic Verses. In 2012, we proved we couldn’t stand up for an author born in this country when the government shrugged its shoulders and said it couldn’t provide protection to Salman Rushdie. Instead, an assembly of bearded men participated in protests for days, beaming with pride when their bigotry scored a victory over intelligence.

The film The Da Vinci Code was banned, until a court ordered its release, thanks to bigots who believed the contents of the film were offensive to their religion.

Kamal Haasan’s Dasavathaaram was targeted by yet another group of bigots, who took umbrage at the scene of a temple idol being lowered into the sea.

There have been several other films that were banned, or severely edited, to keep them within the boundaries of the tolerance of the narrow-minded nincompoops who have taken it upon themselves to bear flags for sundry religions and the elusive ‘Indian culture’.

Fire was slashed almost in half, because some us don’t believe lesbians exist. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn’t release in India because the censors’ guidelines would have required cuts. M F Husain had cases pending against him, and had been arrested multiple times, even in his nineties.

What annoys me most is that the campaigners for bans on films and books and art are usually of such low cultural calibre that they are unlikely to have read – or to be able to read – these books, or understand these films. And yet these are the people the governments are scared of.

The irony is this – despite all these bans being declared at the behest of these groups, can we say our blocking out all controversy from art has kept this country from exploding in riots? Has it kept even our so-called intelligentsia, represented by scholars and writers and journalists and theatre groups, from taking pot-shots at each other?

In speaking of our central and state governments’ inept attitude to these rabble-rousers, we can’t ignore the fact that our intellectuals haven’t done much to fight it. When Rushdie was forced out of the Jaipur Literature Festival, the other authors’ idea of protest was to read passages from the banned book to a gawking audience. If any of them had been serious about fighting the bigotry, they should have registered their protest by staying away from the festival. To top it all off, Chetan Bhagat, pulp fiction machine and self-appointed spokesman for ‘Young India’, had a word of advice for Rushdie.

When Husain’s exhibitions were attacked by Hindu outfits, how many art promoters were willing to host private shows of his work? I should say that I don’t buy into the wave of sympathy for him after he took on Qatari citizenship – I doubt the country would have shown a more liberal attitude than India if his paintings were offensive to Islamic sentiments – and I find his painting of Indira Gandhi as Goddess Durga embarrassingly sycophantic, but that doesn’t imply that his exhibitions should have been allowed to be attacked by Hindu fundamentalist groups, or that the artist should have been persecuted for “hurting religious sentiments”.

When a Muslim outfit voiced concern about Vishwaroopam portraying the religion in a bad light, Kamal Haasan held a private screening for them, instead of ignoring their attention-seeking ploy. Now, they claim the film is offensive after all.

If we want to call ourselves a democracy, and continue to claim we are secular, we need to take a stance against the enslavement of art by bigots. And we need to make a stand in our little ways, whether it’s boycotting a festival that is cowed down by the whims of extremists, or finding informal avenues for the reception of art.

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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at

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