What Colour is Freedom of Expression?


Vinod Mirani

The ‘Pathaan’ controversy has snowballed. But, in this case, to call it a fireball would be more apt.

It all started with the depiction of a song in the film, ‘Besharam Rang’. I have heard of a voluptuous song or a scene related to a certain character’s portrayal in many films. Sadly, in this case, it is nothing of that sort.

The term voluptuous fits a performer, not the act. And the performer here has nothing of that voluptuousness to boast of. The number is full of suggestive moves; it is provocative and reeks of vulgarity.

Whoever thinks that exposing will lure the audience has some very wrong ideas about our moviegoers. If it were so, Sunny Leone would have been the biggest star in our cinema universe and at least she has the body to flaunt. (Now, of course, she insists on a certain dress code before she signs a film.)

‘Pathaan’ reminds me of a book, ‘The Afghan’ (2006), by Frederick Forsyth. It was a book worth remembering by all counts. But my memory was revived when Kamal Haasan copied the subject to make his own version, Vishwaroopam (2012). To say the least, Haasan’s version was funny for those who had read the book.

In Haasan’s version, as in the original, an Al Qaeda man, who resembles Haasan, is captured by the US and Haasan impersonates him with the aim to bring down Al Qaeda! Shah Rukh claims ‘Pathaan’ is a patriotic film. The public perception about a Pathan or an Afghan is that of a solidly built six-foot-plus man. Kamal Haasan did not fit that image. Don’t know if Shah Rukh Khan will!

The very initial response to the song’s release on YouTube was negative. If a star or a maker needs such a prop as ‘Besharam Rang’, it shows lack of confidence. The religious factions joined the bandwagon only later. That helped, the controversy caught on, if that is what the makers wanted.

The song shows the dancer, Deepika Padukone, in various flimsy bikinis and one of them happens to be in saffron or ‘bhagwa’, a colour with which the country’s majority community identifies with.

Looks like thanks to the vulgarity of the choreography, coupled with the saffron and the lyrics, ‘Besharam Rang’ has touched some wrong nerves. On the other hand, Islamists have a problem with how a Pathan is depicted in the film.

If the makers added this song to the film only to roll it out as a promo with plans to withdraw it when the time for the film’s release came, it has backfired. Yes, the makers will make a lot of money from YouTube, where all links to the songs, including the one put up by YRF, are crossing millions of hits (some 113 million at last count).

When such things happen, certain people, especially film stars, raise the issue of freedom of speech and expression. Aamir Khan, Naseeruddin Shah and Javed Akhtar, among others, have resorted to airing such thoughts while they continue to enjoy all the freedom they could ask for.

Yet, a statement by Amitabh Bachchan during the inauguration of the Kolkata Film Festival last week was most curious. He said, “Even now, questions are being raised on civil liberties and freedom of expression.” Yes, they are being raised, but is he also raising it?

Bachchan’s statement made no sense as to why he said it and for whom it was directed at. There was no preamble or conclusion to his comment. Also sharing the stage with him at the event was Shah Rukh Khan, whose ‘Pathaan’ is in the news. Was it meant to please Khan or was it directed at the West Bengal Chief Minister, who was also on the stage?

Bachchan also made a reference to the Cinematograph Act of 1952 vis-a-vis the Censor Board. Why it merited a mention also was left unsaid. He should know that the Act has been amended from time to time and efforts have often been made to appoint a film industry person in the Chair.

By the way, the Bachchan-starrer ‘Sholay’ was the victim of the Censor Board and so was ‘Inquilaab’, among other films, but there is no record of his observations on freedom of speech and expression when this happened.

After all these years in the film industry, one is expected to know that everything does not start and end with the Censor Board. There are other local authorities, down to a District Collector, who have the power to stop a film’s screenings if they fear that a film may hurt people’s sentiments or it may create unrest in his area.

But, most of all, India being the democracy that it is, the masses have freedom of speech and expression. Only, their way of demonstrating or expressing that freedom may not suit everybody. What a senior star should be asking is, why is there censorship for films but none for the digital media, such as YouTube, where the song ‘Besharam Rang’ was released.

In a country where six-and-eight-year-old girls are kidnapped, raped and killed, we can certainly do without more provocation to fuel the perversion of such people. ‘Besharam Rang’ is just that fuel.

‘Cirkus’ second preference; cinemas stay with ‘Avatar’

Rohit Shetty’s ‘Cirkus’, which released on Friday, December 23, was the major Hindi release of the Christmas week. The holiday season was expected to help it make the most of its potential at the box office. What more can a maker ask for? With such an opportune release week for a film, that too one coming from a director reputed for giving mass-oriented blockbusters, the release should have been smooth, a cakewalk.

Here, things got a bit complicated. Though riding on the film is the director Rohit Shetty’s reputation and that of a sellabe star, Ranveer Singh, the makers had to face a hard time. To make the most of the Christmas holidays, the film needed an extensive release with as many screens as possible.

This should have been easy. As there is no other Hindi release to compete with, it could be considered an open week. In normal circumstances, the exhibitors should be chasing the film’s distributors, but, surprisingly, it was the other way round!

‘Cirkus’ was not getting the prime multiplex cinemas and even the single screens equipped with 2K screening facility were out of bounds. The problem was the continuation of the Hollywood hit, ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’. All the best cinemas have been booked by the ‘Avatar’ distributors, Disney, who are bound by a two-week contract. Besides the contract, the cinema managements had no reason to discontinue ‘Avatar’ and accommodate a new film because ‘Avatar’ was doing exceedingly well.

Yes, luckily for ‘Cirkus’, the film is being distributed by PVR, who have granted more shows to the film at their cinemas by reducing the screening of ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’. The new age makers may not be aware, but asking cinemas to discontinue a screening is considered a sacrilege and has always backfired.

For the rest of the cinema chains, it looks like they trust Hollywood more than the Hindi film industry now. Last Christmas, too, there was a contest for screen time between the Hindi film, ’83’, and the Hollywood global hit, ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’. If the cinemas count more on Hollywood today, they cannot be blamed because the Disney banner itself has given them five hits in row, all making money for them.

And now it looks like the exhibitors who stuck with ‘Avatar: Way Of Water’ have made the right decision, taking into account the reports about ‘Cirkus’! -IANS

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