Movies these days always seem to end up “hurting the sentiments” of one group or another. And the Tamil film Sarkar was no exception. This time it was the followers of the ruling AIADMK who got upset because they felt that their beloved Amma was insulted in the film. In fact, they got so upset that they ran riot until the makers of the film were finally forced to cut out one “offending” scene and mute another. It didn’t matter that the Censor Board had passed the film and that it had a valid certificate. And the director AR Murugadoss, who has applied for anticipatory bail, has now been asked by the government’s counsel to give an undertaking that he will never again make a film which is critical of the government’s policies. The case was scheduled for a hearing again on 28 November.

Vijay in Sarkar promo. Image via Twitter

Vijay in Sarkar promo. Image via Twitter

But there are questions: Can such a demand be made in a democratic society where freedom of expression is one of our most valued assets? Can a director be forced to make cuts in a film which has been legitimately released after getting certification from the Censor Board?

Sarkar is a mishmash commercial movie which has all the usual elements of a political pot boiler — corrupt politicians, rigged votes, conspiracies and a Robin Hood-like hero. But it did have some references which could be interpreted as targeting the ruling AIADMK. This is not surprising considering the film was produced by Kalanidhi Maran,who is a nephew of Jayalalitha’s arch rival – the late DMK leader Karunanidhi. The hero Vijay, who has not yet openly spoken of his political aspirations, is also reported to have a leaning towards the DMK.

The scene which caught the ire of the AIADMK followers was one in which poor people were shown throwing out and burning freebies which were given to them by candidates during the elections. Giving freebies has become part and parcel of election politics especially in Tamil Nadu. These freebies ranging from electronic good and computers to free rice and even cattle have been projected all along as welfare schemes aimed at helping the poor to gain dignity and social status. The giving of freebies has even been compared to reservation by some of its proponents.  So obviously the scene of the should-have-been-grateful recipients making a bonfire of the goodies — and that too against a background of catchy protest music — did not go down well. It became worse when the film’s director Murugadoss himself was spotted joining the melee.

There were other not-so-subtle images too which could have been deemed insulting by the ruling cadres. For example, the image of the party leader was everywhere, on the freebies, peeping out of the white transparent pockets of the obsequious party members.

Murugadoss himself is not new to controversies. Considered to be a director with a golden touch, he has made several films in Tamil, Hindi and Telugu which have all been major box office money spinners. But he has also often been accused of plagiarism. This time around, it was his own Assistant Director Varun Rajendran who is also a writer who complained that Murugadoss had simply lifted the plot from his story Sengol, which he had registered with the Writers Union in 2007. A compromise was reached and the film was released with a rather long acknowledgement of Varun’s contribution.

Sarkar is certainly not the first movie ever which has been critical of suspect government schemes or corrupt politicians or rigged votes. Nor is it the first one to show violence as a weapon for tackling corruption. In fact, there have been films in all languages, including Tamil, which were much more critical and expressed dissent in an even more in-depth and in-your-face way. There have been films which showed corrupt politicians being killed, being mocked at and jailed. There have been spoofs and violent films which have shown politicians and ruling governments being routed.

So why was Sarkar singled out for attack from the very day it was released? And more importantly would it have been allowed to be released at all if the former chief minister were alive and in power?

I saw Sarkar in Bangalore on the second day before the self-censorship cuts kicked in. Chennai and many other places in Tamil Nadu were already under siege as AIADMK fans were on the rampage tearing down banners and billboards. A video of two men holding knives and threatening to kill those who protested against the Vijay-starrer movie also went viral. So did video clips of people burning electronic goods and urging others to do so.

But Bangalore was peaceful. It was the city where Jayalalitha grew up and spent what were perhaps her happiest days in school. In the full theatre, a couple of people cheered when the mixies were burnt or laughed at the comedy sequences. A child cried when the scenes became too violent. And many enjoyed AR Rahman’s music. But that was about the extent of audience participation. The people in the audience were mostly Vijay fans who knew what to expect from his movies – a fairly simple (even predictable) plot, colourful dance and action sequences and some romance. All that they got in plenty and the political message actually seemed to have slipped through the cracks.

The problems however had not ended once the cuts were made. To begin with several AIADMK big wigs actually congratulated the Sarkar team for removing the scenes which “hurt the sentiments” not just of party cadres, but of all the people of Tamil Nadu who considered Jayalalitha to be equivalent to god.  The Sarkar film crew also issued a statement saying that they were “heeding the requests of theatre owners and considering the safety of the movie-going public and their belongings,” and so, “one or two scenes that were said to be controversial, have been removed.”

But, when Murugadoss’s plea for anticipatory bail came up for hearing, the Tamil Nadu government opposed the plea and insisted that the director should give an undertaking in the court that he would not make any critical statement of the government’s policies in any of the movies he made in the future. The director’s counsel asked for time to consult with his client and the hearing was adjourned to 28 November.

Meanwhile, some of Tamil Nadu’s super stars like Rajanikanth and Kamal Haasan have come out in support of the filmmaker saying such arbitrary curbs cannot be imposed on a film which has already been passed by the Censor Board.

When the case comes up for hearing again, if the court does accede to the demand of the Sarkar in power, it will set a bad precedent. Freedom of expression cannot be taken away like that with just one fell swipe