The 2020 Malayalam movie 'Halal Love Story' has been popping up in my mind in the context of the Modi government's latest bid on freedom of expression in the country, this time by proposing an amendment to the Cinematograph Act of 1952. Zakariya's film 'Halal Love Story' is a movie that portrays a group of new-gen youngsters in a deeply religious village in Malabar, Kerala, attempting to realise their modest ambition to create a movie - something that lies outside the pale of the village's accustomed sphere of activities.
The youngsters are portrayed as wrestling with religious exegesis at every step of their way; each step is fraught with doubt and leads to umpteen organizational-level discussions on what is halal (permissible) and what is haram (off-limits) vis-à-vis representing life in art. Due to this, the film within the film becomes a tedious back and forth and drags in many places. Yet this drag that the viewers of the remarkable 'Halal Love Story' feel is just how authentically the director has portrayed the difficult journey of creativity in restrictive societies.
With human experience itself most often spilling out of socially accepted boundaries and creativity being by itself essentially transcendental in nature, is there really scope for a 100 per cent socially, morally and religiously "acceptable" cinema?
The word 'creativity' signifies a constant challenge to the status quo and questioning and problematization of the hitherto followed ways of looking at our environment, challenging the dominant wisdom in terms of culture and relationships.
A country's cinema becomes all the richer when it welcomes diverse voices in the constant act of creation, recreation and retelling of histories with freshness in the storytelling methods, format, script and dialogues. A movie – be it commercial or arthouse – is capable of beginning a new and important conversation within a democracy only if it offers a fresh perspective. With its nuanced visuals, acoustics, format etc, it offers a universal persuasion to its audience to be empathetic to experiences and points of view, different from one's own. But what happens if the state decides what is halal cinema?
Indian cinema has been a veritable representation of the zeitgeist down the decades. We can see a pattern in how we unwittingly reached this pass. The glitzy Karan Johar-Shah Rukh Khan films were on a rampage in the post-liberalisation era showing foreign locales and western lifestyles of super-rich Indians.KJo's films sold neo-liberal aspirations to Indians residing in even remote villages, swaying the masses with the formulaic mix of north Indian religious traditions, festivals, dance and music. Despite the country's poverty, the Indian audience collectively denounced the 2008 Oscar-winner 'Slumdog Millionaire' as the Danny Boyle project that set out to denigrate the country. Indians had started to collectively believe that the country had no poverty, no slums anymore.
Persuaded by the mainstream films of the time, people's eyes twinkled with the hope of sab ka all-around vikaas. Parallelly, on the wings of their newfound bravado, youngsters started marrying people of their choice, challenging age-old religious/caste boundaries. The push and pull of forces of societies in transition in different parts of India among various castes and sub-castes gave fodder for new and hopeful stories.
With new hope in the heart, the country was dissolving boundaries of caste and creed to come together. But our cinema both enabled and disabled us. The narrative of our cinema also kept us from looking squarely at the unsavoury episodes like pogroms and majoritarian tyranny in contemporary India. However, on the other hand, films like 'Aarakshan' debated the issue of the politically charged issue of reservations. New 'Bahujan cinemas were slowly beginning to capture the imagination of the people and questioning the caste hierarchies in India.
In 2014, Modi became PM. A certain type of Indians around the world took pride in the fact that there was finally a Prime Minister who made India feel at par with the superpowers; he spoke with world leaders on a first-name basis. But even when a handful of Indian businessmen/women and actors/actresses figured in the Forbes list of the world's most powerful, back in India, there were fissures to the Modi development dream and troll armies and street vigilante groups were going all out to muzzle dissent of any kind.
After the BJP came to power, SRK and Aamir Khan were made to realise that they were merely Muslim actors. If they raised their voice against the rising atmosphere of intolerance and hate crimes in the country, they were asked to go to Pakistan. Understandably the Bollywood community of actors and actresses largely fell silent. India was fast climbing the steps to irrational hate. A BJP politician put a price on the head of Dipika Padukone, who played the role of Padmavati in the movie 'Padmavat' as her lead character was shown as arousing the interest of a Muslim King. Theatre owners, movie-makers and actors/actresses were equally afraid of the "fringe" mobs. However, Tollywood movies kept taking critical potshots against Modi's policies such as demonetisation, GST etc.
In the Bombay film industry, the freewheeling entertainers slowly tapered out. In their place under the BJP dispensation came up films with pseudo-nationalist fervour such as 'Uri – The Surgical Strike' (2019), a biopic of the Prime Minister called 'Modi' (2019), a film satirizing the Manmohan Singh government called 'Accidental Prime Minister' (2019) and several others with a definite political agenda to win elections.
The cinematic representation of the enormous diversity of lives, emotions, aspirations and vulnerabilities of the people of India will be choked for eternity once the Cinematograph Act Amendment becomes law. All old and new films will now be given a CBFC certification for eternity. The grammar and aesthetics of Indian cinema which had captured the minds and hearts of renowned directors on the international film circuit will be controlled forever.
The blandness and mediocrity of a nationalized cinema, devoid of any sign of organic life or expression, produced in the milieu of fear, careful not to overstep what is halal to the government, will not be adequate to express our emotions and aspirations.
The draft amendment of the Cinematograph Act 1952, if passed in Parliament, will give the Centre powers to restrain the content and forms of cinematic expression within Indian territory. The empowering freedom in expressing in one's own style the endless variety and nuances of experiences in people's lives in an inclusive, democratic space, delineating the lived experiences of India's diverse classes, castes and religions, will be shut out for eternity.
These are indeed times when the government feels compelled to control the narrative as there will be thousands of film scripts floating around across the land, telling stories of government apathy during Covid when dear ones struggled for oxygen and when food prices fly through the roof.
Freedom of expression in India today remains the prerogative of hate-mongers, both within and outside cinema. This tribe was at it even over the dead body of the legendary actor Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan), alleging that he had bequeathed his wealth of Rs 98 cr to the Waqf board instead of to an NGO or an old age home. Such are the times of India's one-sided censorship.
(Leena Mariam Koshy is an independent writer based in Kozhikode, Kerala.)