Just last Wednesday, the Madras High Court struck down a provision in a 60 year old law that demanded drama artists to submit their scripts to police for approval before they stage their plays. The state’s Dramatic Performances Act 1954 was passed at a time when Tamil Nadu was still called Madras state, and Indian National Congress was in power. In that year (1954), the state government headed by K Kamaraj banned a play by thespian MR Radha saying it offended religious sentiments. The play was called Ramayana, and it came with a twist: Ravana was the hero, and Rama the villain. The play is mostly forgotten now. MR Radha passed away in 1979. But the rule persisted.
Those with neither training nor instinct could now decide on the fate of plays. Sometimes, their approval came at the last moment, keeping the artists and audience in suspense. Sometimes, they demanded ‘objectionable’ scenes or dialogues to be cut. Art suffered. “The power conferred on the State government under section 3 as well as on the police commissioner/district collectors under section 4 is too wide and highly discretionary. Therefore, it cannot be held to be constitutionally valid and hence it is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution,” the Madras High court judge noted while striking down the rules. Gnani Sankaran, who fought for the repeal of the rule called the verdict a victory for the freedom of expression.
Given this, there’s an expectation among fans, artists and journalists in Tamil Nadu that Madras High Court will stand up for freedom of speech yet again and rule in favour of Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam. Last week, Kamal’s latest movie was banned by Tamil Nadu government for 15 days after a few Muslim organizations complained that the film hurt their sentiments. Kamal Haasan filed a case asking the court to lift the ban. On Saturday, the High Court judges watched the movie. On Monday, there was disappointment. The court asked Kamal to explore all possibilities with the state government while they pass the verdict. The case was heard at Madras High Court today. The verdict is yet to be given.
There are reasons to believe that it will be in Kamal’s favour. Those who have seen Vishwaroopam say there’s nothing offensive in the film. Over the weekend I spoke to a few of my friends abroad who had a chance to watch it. Their views on the film varied. Some liked it, and some didn’t. But none found anything that seemed offensive. The movie has been screened in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala without any incident. More importantly, the legality of a state government passing such orders is suspect. In 2011, when Prakash Jha took a few state governments to Supreme Court for banning his film Aarakshan he won the case. A Hindu editorial supporting Jha that time quoted these lines from an earlier judgement: “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence.”
Economics of Vishwaroopam
While making a case for releasing his movie on DTH first, and in cinemas a day later, Kamal said, “Like justice, entertainment delayed is entertainment denied.” He might have used a bit of poetic license to connect entertainment with justice, but he also displayed a poet’s instinct for anticipating the future. There are delays and that’s going to cost him money.
The film might have had a good response from his fans abroad. However, for an Indian film, the bulk of its revenues has to come from domestic market. According to a KPMG analysis, domestic theatrical revenues account for three fourth of total revenues, and overseas theatrical revenues account for about 7%.
Again, within India, while the movie is being released in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil, it’s the third that’s expected to contribute the maximum. Kamal is well known in Andhra Pradesh too, and some of his best movies were in fact made in Telugu ( Swati Muthyam and Sagara Sangamam). He is known in Hindi too. Yet, it’s in Tamil Nadu that he has his most devoted fans, and it’s there he can hope to make most of his money.
Traditionally, in Tamil market, fans have anchored their expectations around two festivals. One is Deepavali (October / November) and another is Pongal (January). Kamal was targeting the Pongal season. That’s when people are in a holiday mood; they go out, spend a lot of money, and consider a few hours inside a cinema hall as time well spent. He missed that opportunity because theater owners were against him releasing the film first on DTH.
The date he subsequently chose – Januray 25th – was not as good his first – and releasing the movie this week will be worse. In the coming weekend, the film has to compete with another highly anticipated movie Kadal. Kadal will appeal to similar set of audience for two reasons: it’s directed by Mani Ratnam, and has a cast that will find a lot of resonance with the audience. In 1981, when Kamal’s Ek Duuje Ke Liye became a big hit in the north, two young actors – Karthik and Radha – made a dashing debut in the south through a super hit film called Alaigal Oivathillai. Mani Ratnam’s Kadal has Karthik’s son and Radha’s daughter playing the lead roles. The trailer of Kadal (which also has some haunting music composed by AR Rahman) suggests it will be ‘cinema as an entertainment’, rather than as ‘cinema to make a point’.
David, starring Vikram, will also be hitting the screens on February 1st.
Vishwaroopam will have to compete with these two films this next weekend. The first few days are the most important for any cinema. That’s where most money is made.
A more insidious competitor is piracy. According to a PWC report, Indian cinema loses 14% of its revenues to piracy. The demand for pirated CDs/DVDs is at its peak soon after the film is released as potential film goers weigh the desire to watch a new movie against the time, cost and efforts involved in going to a theater. Kamal was betting big on tapping this demand through releasing the film in DTH premiere. That did not work out.
The big question now is whether the interest generated by all these controversies will offset the losses due to delays.
Politics and Cinema in Tamil Nadu
In many ways, the core issue here is business than art. In fact, in one of the press conferences a couple of weeks back, Kamal called himself a mere businessman, fighting for his right to sell his product in the market he chooses.
But, we might be missing the bigger point, if we don’t recognize that it’s also about art, and freedom of expression. Not because Kamal Haasan is a talented actor, not because he is as passionate as anyone can get about movies, but simply because cinema, even if it’s a badly made cinema, is a symbol of artistic expression. (This is also the reason why even those who had very low opinion about the talent of Aseem Trivedi stood up for his right to express his views through cartoons)
The banning of the movie says something about the uneasy relationship between art and politics in Tamil Nadu. Both the dominant political parties grew as a result of its association with cinema. CN Annadurai wrote movie scripts and dialogues, and so did M Karunanidhi. MG Ramachandran, the charismatic politician who ruled the state for years was also a charismatic star; and so is J Jayalalithaa. The state politicians have shown extraordinary desire to exert control over the film industry, and many artists have often shown extraordinary compliance. Extravagant functions to honour or thank politicians are common. Stars align themselves with one party or the other – and that often impacts their career in films. Vadivelu, a popular comedian, is no longer seen in Tamil cinema because of his caustic campaign against Jayalalithaa and Vijayakanth (another actor who made a transition to politics) in the 2011 elections.
That uneasy relationship is evident in the present case too. Kamal Haasan received little support from his own colleagues in the industry, except for brief statements by Rajnikanth and Prakash Raj. He is fighting a lone battle. It’s in this political context that the complaint gained over-sized importance.
The verdict, even if it strikes down the ban, should be seen only as a temporary solution.