Is the ban on The Kerala Story justified? – #BigStory

When the makers of The Kerala Story released their film, little did they know the controversy it would stir up despite CBFC certification and the number of litigations that would follow soon after. The Sudipto Sen directorial, that follows the story of a group of women from Kerala who are converted to Islam and join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), landed in controversy after release when many thought that the figures claimed in the film are widely inaccurate, that it is based on mistranslations, misquotes and extrapolations from misrepresentations of unrelated statistics. As a consequence The Kerala Story was banned from screening in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal after its release.
This, however, is not the first time a film has faced a ban after certification and release. In 1975, Aandhi was not allowed a full release when Indira Gandhi was in power. The film was banned during the national emergency of 1975 a few months after its release.

Producer NR Pachisia had lost nearly Rs 3 crore in 2005 when his movie Jo Bole So Nihal faced protests due to the ‘wrong portrayal’ of Sikhs. He had said it is sad that political parties are trying to curb creativity. “Each time a film releases there is an issue – either it is religion, region or caste and this happens even after it is being cleared by the Censor Board,” he had said.
In the case of The Kerala Story, the film was certified by the CBFC on April 24. The Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan objected to the film on April 30. It was banned from screening in Tamil Nadu on May 8. Following which West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordered an immediate ban on the screening of the film in the state to avoid ‘any incident of hatred and violence’.
In today’s #BigStory, we speak to industry insiders and find out if in this case, the concerned state governments should have raised concerns before the film was released, is it fair to stop a film from being screened in theatres after CBFC certification, do controversies help a film positively, will this trend of using controversy catch on as a regular strategy to promote films with social or political subjects and more.

Is the ban justified?
The Central Board of Film Certification is a statutory film-certification body in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting of the Government of India, tasked with regulating the public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act 1952. The question then arises how and whether state governments can take such a call to ban a film after it has been certified for release by the CBFC.
Filmmaker Prakash Jha too had faced litigations in 2011 for his film Aarakshan. Speaking to eTimes about the ongoing The Kerala Story debate, he said, “You can have all the differences with a film but you don’t have the right to ban a film after it is approved by the CBFC. I may have a difference of opinion with the film, that I can express on any forum that I want. But there is no way a film should be banned by a state government. The state government has a responsibility to maintain law and order. In the name of law and order, if you’re banning the film, you are committing a crime.”
Emphasising that after CBFC’s approval, the film should be left in the hands of the public to decide if they want to watch it or not, he said, “I also had to fight for my film when it was banned. I had defeated three state governments in court. Once a film is approved by the CBFC, it is the responsibility of the state governments to maintain law and order to make sure that the film is running in theatres. If people want to go and see it, they will go and see it. If they want to protest, they will protest in a civil manner.”

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Former CBFC Chairman Pahlaj Nihalani says, “Nobody can revoke the certificate given to a film by the CBFC except for the Government of India, that too if there’s a public objection to it. The public of Kerala doesn’t seem to have a problem with it but the film is being viewed state-to-state. The states with the BJP government have declared it tax-free because there’s a political benefit. Whereas the states with major Muslim populations are having a problem with the release of the film because of vote banks. It is the state government’s job to maintain law and order in the state. They cannot ban a film presuming that there might be a disruption in law and order. They think it is their house, so it should be their rule. Only the Chief Minister of the state can take such a decision to either gain political mileage or handle the situation. This is a soft target.”
Actor-producer Shashi Ranjan resonates, “I don’t think any film, when it is duly censored, nobody has a right to do any kind of a ban on that film, whether it is any Sena or whether it is any right wing or left wing. Censor certification ka matlab hi yahi hai, once the government allows a film to be publicly released, it should be released.”
Filmmaker Sudhir Mishra calls the ban on the film ‘absolutely wrong’ and says, “It’s a view. Kerala has handled The Kerala Story very well.”
Advocate Ameet Naik who is representing the makers of The Kerala Story in the litigation case says the power of Section 6 of the State Act has been misused many times. “The film was released on Friday and was exhibited for about 3 days both in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. The order of West Bengal under the local cinema regulation is dated 8th May. It is well settled law that once a film is certified by CBFC, it is the duty of the state that the film is exhibited unfettered and all effective steps should be taken to ensure safety of theatres and patrons. It is duty of the state to ensure that law and order is maintained. The power under section 6 of the State Acts has been misused in many cases including Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan and the apex court’s ruling sets the law unambiguous.”
He adds that the state ban is unfair to a filmmaker and infringes upon his right to freedom of speech and expression. “The ban by multiple states has compelled Sunshine Pictures to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court. We have faith in the judiciary to address the issue.”

Politicisation of cinema
Time and again, Bollywood films have seen both strong support and oppositions from political parties whenever a controversy stirs up. Recalling previous incidents, Pahlaj Nihalani says, “The Maharashtra government banned Fire (1996) even after it was cleared by the CBFC. Nobody could stop that. The UP government stopped the filming of Water (2005). The CBFC still holds value. But political groups and parties have become too strong for anyone to have a say in it. Nobody wants to mess with them. If The Kerala Story had been released directly in theatres who would have had any control over that? And even after banning a book or a movie, it is still available in the market. The Kerala Story is being talked about everywhere. Today, the data is available on the internet. If the same comes in the form of a movie on a larger scale why should you be worried about it? If things were happening, then why didn’t the state government stop them?”
Nialani further explains how banning a film harms the state governments. “By banning a film, the state governments are losing their GST revenue. The film will finally be available on the OTT. The state governments are losing money for their political gains,” he says.

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Shashi Ranjan says political parties have their vested interests in such cases. “They use cinema as their tool to promote their goals into public life which is very, very sad,” he says. “And I think this must be stopped on all levels. Even in our film industry, there are certain people who are going left wing or right wing. There is no wing when a cinema is cinema, everybody has a right to tell a story. And if a duly approved censored film comes out, it should not be banned anywhere.”
Ranjan adds that in a democracy, everybody has a right to protest, but political parties take advantage of that. “Being a Chief Minister of State, you’re saying that there will be arson and there’ll be a law and order problem. I mean, excuse me, sir. Who is responsible for the law and order situation? If a chief minister is saying that there will be a problem in law and order, then then she or he should not be on that chair. It’s their job to do it,” he says.
More often than not such socio-political outrage is selective, depending on what suits a group or individual’s narrative. “It is contrived and sponsored,” says Sudhir Mishra. “The people are absolutely democratic. If they don’t like something if they don’t watch it. In 1987-88, they said that Tamas would cause a law and order problem. The court passed its justice and there was no problem. In those days it was screened on Doordarshan and the whole country watched it. There was a huge viewership.”
Do controversies help a film?
There are several instances of films that have landed in controversy and yet done exceptional business at the box office, Pathaan and The Kashmir Files being the recent examples. Could it mean that controversies end up aiding the promotional efforts of the movie? Is it the sensationalism that ends up attracting the audience to theatres? If so, will this trend of using controversy catch on as a regular strategy to promote films with social or political subjects?

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“Well controversies help a film’s box office collections,” says film critic and trade analyst Komal Nahta. “But it can do so only if the film has merits. If the film doesn’t have merits, no amount of controversy is going to work. And this is a phenomenon right from time immemorial. We have seen a dozen examples of films which have been controversial and then they have clicked. But it is because those films had merits. If the film does not have merits, no amount of controversy can help it. Case in point, my very own uncle’s Kissa Kursi Ka. The controversy surrounding that film has never been seen before that or after. In those times, it got free publicity because of the controversy and that free publicity was worth around Rs 50 crore then. But the film was rejected outright, it ran for barely one show. It was one of the biggest disasters of Indian cinema ever.”
“So to say that a controversy helps a film is only partially correct. Controversy helps if the content is good,” he says.
Shashi Ranjan agrees, “Controversies do not always help. Kissa Kursi Ka was a very controversial film, but it did not do very well. There are many films which have political overtones and some kind of controversies. But they don’t do well. Eventually it’s the content which attracts people. Yes, of course, it does create curiosity, there is no doubt about it. Any film which gets into controversy creates curiosity. So the curiosity crowd definitely comes. But if the content is not good, it does not do well after two or three days.”

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