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On Curbing Free Expression

Aseem Chhabra is a member of the South Asian Journalists Association (S.A.J.A.) and writes regularly for Rediff.

South Asian Journalists Association, May 23, 2005

Photo: A scene from the film 'Jo Bole So Nihaal'

Gosh, what a mad, mad culture and region we all come from. I am so tired of works of art hurting the religious feelings of one group or another. This time it is the Sikhs (Jo Bole So Nihaal), but Hindu religious feelings were hurt when Deepa Mehta's film (Fire) depicted a lesbian relationship between two sister-in-laws (although I strongly believe that Fire burnt up Hindu groups because the film said that it was O.K. for abused women to leave their nasty husbands); and Anglo-Indians' religious feelings were hurt with Ismail Merchant's Cotton Mary; and Muslim religious feelings were so badly hurt (The Satanic Verses) that poor Salman Rushdie had to go into hiding for nearly a decade.

I know Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary deeply upset the devout Catholics, but those films were never banned, never withdrawn from theaters.

I was in L.A. when Hail Mary opened in the mid-1980s. I remember old nuns with rosaries and equally old priests standing with placards outside a theater in Beverly Hills. But the film was allowed to be shown in the U.S. (it was banned in Rome). The release of The Last Temptation of Christ resulted in a massive campaign by Christian groups against the film. One part of the argument was that the making of the film was a Jewish conspiracy. The film was produced by Universal and two men heading the organization - Lew Wasserman, chairman of M.C.A. (parent company of Universal) and Sidney Sheinberg, president of M.C.A., were both Jewish. Plus Scorsese was no longer a practicing Catholic. Thousands protested outside Universal's lot. But the film was never banned. Despite protests outside theaters, people were free to see the film.

Books get banned in the U.S. We often hear of school boards banning To Kill A Mockingbird, or Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ - but that usually happens in small towns in middle-America.

Having said this, I have occasionally heard of films that did not find distribution in the U.S. because of political reasons. Last year Nisha Ganatra told me that her film Fast Food High was not distributed in the U.S., because it was too political. The film dealt with a young woman's efforts to create a union at a fast food chain (but then again Super Size Me grossed over $11 million in the U.S. and made Morgan Spurlock a very rich man).

And in 1983 Costa-Gavras' Hanna K barely ran in N.Y.C. theaters for a week. The film was sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle and it was speculated the the Jewish lobby had pressured the film to be withdrawn from theaters (no strong evidence here).

I know it is silly to compare situations in India and the U.S. There were bomb blasts in New Delhi yesterday. Why couldn't the police provide protection to the audience in the theaters? They knew there was trouble brewing. Why didn't the police protect theaters showing Deepa Mehta's Fire? Why wasn't Deepa and her crew given police protection as they were trying shoot Water in Varanasi? The film's script had been approved by the B.J.P.-led central government (by the way, Deepa did eventually make Water - but she had to go all the way down to Sri Lanka to shoot the film).