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Last Updated 18.10.2019 | 10:31 PM IST
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An Open Letter to makers of Udta Punjab regarding Freedom of Expression

Freedom

Dear film-makers who want absolute freedom of expression,

I am a small film exhibitor from a small town in a small territory (in the context of film distribution) called CP Berar. As a small part of this fraternity that has extremely wide outreach, not only within the geographical borders of the country, but the world over, I’d like to offer my support to the cause of ‘freedom of expression’ that you are all fighting for so earnestly.

Freedom of expression is the right of every Indian citizen and obviously, film-makers ought to have this right too! Telling stories that are fictional or a depiction of the reality around us is your job and you ought to have every right to do it, without being asked to cut, alter, mutilate or change your narrative in any manner. Our freedom and rights cannot be compromised at any cost and at this juncture, I’d like to quote an iconic champion of human rights in order to put across my opinion on this issue –

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” – Nelson Mandela.

While many of you have gone on to criticize the I&B Ministry, cabinet ministers, the prime minister of the country and even equated the working ways of Censor Board Of Film Certification (CBFC) to the conditions in North Korea in your bid to seek your absolute ‘freedom of expression’, how many of you are willing to take absolute responsibility for the consequences of your free expression?

It is easy to say that the Indian CBFC should function like the film certification system in the West where films are only certified and not censored, but can you rationally make an attempt to list out the differences in the socio-political potency and conditions of the two regions? India is home to dozens of religions, hundreds of cultures, thousands of castes & classes and an unlimited set of political ideologies and each one of them, has a leader or leaders who try to score brownie points with the communities they claim to represent, every time they see an opportunity to do so. It’s unfortunate, but there are times when the protests by these leaders against some films (allegedly in a bid to oppose a thought on behalf of the community they claim to represent) turn violent & cinema halls are vandalised!

You would say that it’s the Government’s responsibility to ensure that law & order prevails and you are not wrong in saying that! The Government certainly does try to do so! Let me tell you about an incident that occurred at one of our cinemas in Bhilai (an industrial town in Chhattisgarh). A few days before the release of a much anticipated film, threat letters were issued to us by organizations that were opposing the release of the film. We were warned that if we screen the film, our cinema would be attacked by them and anything untoward that may happen would be ‘our responsibility’. When we passed the letters on to the local police and concerned departments in the state Government (and co-incidentally, it’s a BJP government that governs the state), about 25 armed policemen were promptly deputed at the cinema to protect the property & ensure safety of the audience.

On the afternoon of the first Sunday of the film’s run (when the cinema was playing the film to a jam packed audience), a mob of almost 800 people marched up to the cinema, armed with hockey sticks, cricket bats etc. Obviously, there wasn’t much that 25 policemen could do to control a violent crowd of that size & what followed, resulted in significant damages to the property, 2 broken bones in my manager’s limbs & 3 severely injured staff members who had to be hospitalised after being beaten up while they were bravely protecting our audience.

In a scenario like that, had things gone slightly beyond what happened and God forbid, if something untowardly had occurred (specially to somebody who had come to watch the film at the cinema), who would have been held RESPONSIBLE for the situation? Would it be the Government that did what it could to ensure safety? Or would it be the film-maker whose ‘freedom of expression’ was the apparent reason that resulted in what happened? Obviously, we paid for the damages to the property, the medical expenses of our people who had to undergo treatment and not even a fourth of what we spent came from our insurance claim. Forget about compensating for our losses, the champions of free speech who made the film (and they know me personally) didn’t even bother to call and offer moral support to us in the situation that we were facing!

Now, with Mr. Anurag Kashyap fighting his battle for freedom of expression, even if the CBFC clears the filmUdta Punjab in the exact way as it was envisioned and made, who should be held responsible if some people in a politically sensitive state like Punjab get down to doing what happened to us in Bhilai across the state? Would Mr. Kashyap be willing to take the responsibility that ought to go with his freedom of expression & compensate for the losses due to damages that cinema hall owners across the country (specifically Punjab) may incur while upholding his free expression and the medical bills of those who may get injured in a situation like that? If so, I’d love to see the agreements of the film that exhibitors sign incorporate a revolutionary clause that says –

“We the producers & director of the film indemnify the exhibitors of the film against any monitory losses that may arise due to vandalism at the cinema halls in protest against our film. We shall compensate for the expenses that may arise for the repair and renovation of the properties in case they are damaged and the medical expenses for the treatment of cinema staff members and the audience who may get injured during the course of our film’s showcasing at the cinemas.”

Till film-makers don’t gather the guts to take this responsibility that comes with their freedom of expression, we would (very unfortunately) have to live with the oligarchic, redundant, pathetic and obnoxious (yes, that is exactly what I think they are) sensibilities of CBFC members, who would try to ‘sanitize’ your work of art in order to prevent nasty situations from arising at cinema halls across the country. You may say that exhibitors also have the choice to not screen your film, but then what would they do? Turn the properties into warehouses and rent them out? The salaries of lakhs of employees at cinemas across the country come from the revenues that cinema halls generate by exhibiting films and it’s our responsibility as exhibitors to play the films that come along & pay those salaries at the end of every month!

The issue is not just about the working ways of the CBFC & the Government’s job in this context. Film makers really need to know that there exists a world beyond their ivory towers and the snazzy multiplexes in the metros, in which their freedom of expression is often the cause of violence, damage of property and situations that put the safety of people at risk. In a country that has a population of over 1.25 billion, any number of policemen, security guards etc. deployed by the state or central Government would not be able to control situations that arise at different places & the miscreants would only have to be lucky once to escape from the watchful eyes of the guarding authorities to cause the damage that they intend to and get a free ride into the limelight.

To demand freedom and not take the responsibility for what it may result in, is a bit unfair! Take this little step, accept the responsibility of the consequences that may arise courtesy your films and make way for the freedom of expression! I promise I shall be the first one to cheer for you!

Good luck & God bless!

Akshaye Rathi

More Pages: Udta Punjab Box Office Collection , Udta Punjab Movie Review

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