Facts in fiction: on 'Mersal' row
What are facts in a work of fiction? Are they to be treated as incontrovertible truth or as a licence of creative imagination? In the answers to these questions lies the key to understanding the most pressing issue currently occupying the mind space of the politicians of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Tamil Nadu. Over the past week, senior State leaders of the party have been busy ferreting out references to contemporary realities in a film, Mersal, and testing them against their very own touchstone of truth. They now want the deletion of particular scenes on the goods and services tax regime (because these are factually incorrect) as well as those on the health care situation in the country (because these are critical of the government). India is no stranger to threats to freedom of expression whether in art and movies or in news and academic publishing, whether from organised civilian groups or from the government. From time to time, all sorts of self-identified groups have claimed to be offended by something or the other that they imagined to be an affront to their shared culture or communal heritage. In this Republic of Hurt Sentiments, religion, caste, language and geography have been variously invoked by such groups to mobilise opposition to some perceived insult in a painting or a motion picture. Controversial sections of the Indian Penal Code such as 153A, which prohibits the promotion of enmity between different groups, and 295A, which prohibits insult of religious beliefs, are routinely used to silence voices or harass those who hold dissenting views.
The cynical manipulation of such sections of the law is bad enough. But the censorship demand of the Tamil Nadu BJP has touched a whole new level of absurdity. There is not even a bad provision in the law that bars criticism of the government, whether in newspapers or in films. Mersal is a pure work of fiction, and if the lead actor got his facts about GST in a twist, this is best left to film critics and the audience to react to. To seek cuts in a film on the ground that some of the spoken words are false is ludicrous. By this token, there would be no place for fairy tales in cinema, no role for satire, allegory or hyperbole. Initially, the film’s producers seemed to have been taken aback by the BJP’s intimidatory demand that the ‘offending’ scenes be cut. However, the groundswell of support from the film fraternity and the public bolstered their confidence in fighting the threat. Given that the BJP is not much of a political force in Tamil Nadu, the entire controversy over Mersal has a farcical character to it. But it is impossible to ignore what may have happened had the party succeeded in arm-twisting the film-makers into effecting the changes it demanded. This would have sent out a chilling message to the entire film industry.