The uproar over ‘Sarkar’ reveals a strong streak of political intolerance in Tamil Nadu

Bullying film-makers into shelving projects or effecting cuts is not new in India. However, it is not often that a State government or the ruling party resorts to threat and intimidation against a commercial film. The AIADMK in Tamil Nadu has forced the makers of the Tamil film Sarkar to cut a scene and mute some dialogue, ostensibly because they are critical of government policy or offend their sensibilities. AIADMK supporters went on a rampage in cinemas that screened the film, and in chorus, State Ministers spoke of legal action against the producers, while decrying scenes critical of populist schemes. Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar’s remark that film-makers have “lost their fear” after the demise of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was a tacit endorsement of a climate of fear. This is a reminder that it does not take much to touch the raw nerves of politicians. The blowback is worse when the party in question is running the government. This film has become an easy target for the AIADMK dispensation, as it is critical of welfare schemes for which the State is renowned. Part of a woman character’s name will now be muted to avoid any impression, however unfounded, that it was a veiled reference to Jayalalithaa. Images of people throwing into the fire mixers and grinders they had got from the government have also been snipped.

Sarkar controversy: what is it all about?

 

The legal position that there should be no further enforced censorship once a film has been certified by the Central Board of Film Certification has been wilfully ignored. Though the courts have repeatedly emphasised this, and come out strongly against street violence being used as an excuse to curtail free expression, producers are frequently forced by the politically powerful to compromise. Actor Vijay, who plays the protagonist in Sarkar, and has a considerable fan following, is seen as nurturing political ambitions. His previous project, Mersal, had drawn the ire of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit for critical references to the GST. One of the ironies in Tamil Nadu is that sometimes serious social issues are debated more in commercial cinema than in the political arena. Though the treatment of such issues often lacks substance or nuance, it has had a way of offending someone or the other, and resulted in orchestrated protests and demands for bans or post-certification cuts. A State in which cinema has played such a defining role — as many as five Chief Ministers have had a film industry background — ought to understand that films will and should make comments on issues of social importance. And that criticism on celluloid is no reason to take the law into one’s hands and use the might of the State to instil a climate of fear and stifle free expression.

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