In what could be a major relief for the renowned Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan and the upholding of the freedom of speech and expression by an independent Judiciary, the Kerala High Court (HC) today permitted the screening of Patwardhan’s documentary ‘Reason/Vivek’ in the ongoing International Documentary and Short Film Festival at Thiruvananthapuram on the grounds that “apprehension that the documentary might affect law and order was not a valid reason to withhold sanction.”
The two writ petitioners, Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, the organizer of the festival and the filmmaker Patwardhan, approached the HC after the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) rejected its application seeking permission for the screening of the documentary on the grounds that “the theme of the documentary was sensitive in nature and may have law and order ramifications.”
The four-hour documentary is based on the rise of religious fundamentalism in India in the backdrop of murder of rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M.Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh among others. The film begins by looking into the murders these rationalists and the role of the Sanatan Sanstha in spreading right-wing extremist violence. It then goes on to Dalit protests and the rise of Dalit leaders in recent years, and ends in Dadri, Mohammad Akhlaq’s village. The film has won a number of awards across the world, including the award for the Best Feature-Length Documentary at the 31st International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam.
According to section 9 of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, the films which are not certified by the Central Board of Film Certification requires special exemption from the Central government for public exhibition. Thus, the organizing academy had on May 27 submitted an application to the I&B Ministry seeking exemption for 161 documentaries, that were to be screened in the festival. Notably, on June 17 the Ministry sent back a list of documentaries which received exemption but Patwardhan’s film was absent from that list. After repeated attempts of finding out the reason for rejection, the Ministry finally responded yesterday stating that the film’s subject is sensitive which may cause law and order problems.
Consequently, the petitioners filed a writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution in the HC today stating that the “mere apprehension of law and order breakdown is not a valid ground to suppress free speech.” The matter was heard by a single judge bench comprising of Justice Shaji P. Chaly.
The petitioners, represented by Advocate Sudhi Vasudevan and Jose Jones Joseph, cited the 2017 judgement of the Kerala HC which had quashed the Centre’s denial of sanction to screen the documentaries ‘March, March, March’ and ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ in the same festival on the grounds that “freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution includes the right to express one’s political views as well. Film is a legitimate and effective medium..” The two films were based on protests in JNU and suicide of Rohit Vemula respectively.
Granting the screening permission, Justice Chaly stated that the “apprehension that the documentary might affect law and order was not a valid reason to withhold sanction. Even as per the guidelines framed by the I&B Ministry in this regard, the screening of the documentary is permissible.” However, the Judge clearly stated that the documentary should not be screened elsewhere except in the festival.
Festival director Kamal told the New Indian Express that since the film is already available on YouTube and has been viewed many times, it does not make sense for the Centre to deny permission straight off the bat.
Anand Patwardhan is known for his socio-political, human rights-oriented films and has been a winner of several national and international awards. His films have sparked multiple controversies in the past as well, due to their strong and sometimes unpalatable messages (for the government). His films like ‘Ram ke Naam’ (on Babri Masjid demolition), ‘Father, Sun and Holy War’ (on post Babri riots), ‘A Narmada Diary’ etc led to protests from radical elements.
The documentary and short film festival is being held from June 21 to June 26.