Watch No Evil

Article excerpt

Byline: Dilip D'Souza

India is earning a reputation for overzealous film censorship.

Another day, another movie protested/banned/censored/take your pick. India is the world's largest producer of feature films, their stars some of our biggest icons, their songs instant hits that are sung by youth all over the country. Yet India is also home to an inordinate number of people who take offense at scenes in films and want them cut. So vocal are they--clearly more vocal than free-speech advocates--and often so ready to threaten violence, that they usually get their way.

The most recent case is the Tamil film Vishwaroopam (Image of the World), apparently some kind of thriller about terrorism (no, I have not seen it). Some Muslim groups have protested, saying it has portrayed Muslims poorly and thus "hurt their sentiments."

That last, it has always seemed to me, is an empty statement heard far too often and taken far too seriously. Instead of standing up to this bullying, the southern state of Tamil Nadu decided to ban the film, citing apprehension of law-and-order problems. Days later, with its makers frantic at losing out at the box office--Tamil Nadu, naturally, is the biggest market for a Tamil film--the filmmakers agreed to sit across a table with these Muslim groups. What emerged was a series of seven cuts to be made in the print.

Chalk up one more blow struck at the shaky edifice of free expression in India.

Speaking of which, I have personal experience of what such offense does to ordinary folks' understanding of free expression. Some months ago, the film was Kamaal Dhamaal Malamaal (hard to translate--literally Wonder Fun Lottery, though the Vatican uses the title Laugh, Be Happy), apparently some kind of potboiler in which a Catholic priest is shown to be a lottery addict (no, I have not seen it). This time it was Christian groups who were offended, their sentiments hurt by such "blasphemy." Even the Vatican took note. Of course there were cuts made.

Sometime in the middle of it all, Christian groups organized a protest rally against the film, starting at a church not far from where I live. The writer--and my buddy--Naresh Fernandes called with a suggestion: what about going there to register our protest against this protest? Especially because we both sport good Portuguese Catholic names (Fernandes, D'Souza). So we rustled up two quick handwritten posters and walked over to the church, arriving 15 minutes before the rally started. Time enough to try to talk to those present.

To start with, the protesters were welcoming and polite, almost to a fault. "Sure, you can have your point of view," they said. "We're completely open to differences in opinion," they said. Naresh and I mingled with the congregation, expressing our points of view as best we could. All well, we thought.

Except it wasn't long before we started getting dark looks. A woman pronounced loudly and pointedly that only those who agreed with the protest would be allowed to join the march--not that we intended to join anyway. Two young men moved through the crowd and then pushed past us, muttering under their breath about the need to gather "many" people to "give pasting." ("Pasting": Bombay Catholic slang for "thrashing.") Was the mention of "many" a nod to our biceps that rippled, above our potbellies that jiggled? …