Mersal and the Business of Self-Censorship

Shoot me for saying this, but I feel for BJP’s H Raja. Mr. Raja is among those from the party’s Tamil Nadu unit who condemned actor Vijay’s latest film Mersal because it has a dialogue in which the actor says Singaporeans pay 7% GST and get free medical treatment while in India, we’re paying 28% and remain victims of a greedy medical establishment. This, Mr. Raja has argued, shows a lack of knowledge of economics and gives undue good publicity to Singapore where healthcare isn’t free, thank you very much.

One could argue that of all the things that drive fans to Thalapathy’s films, a lecture on Indian economics or Singaporean healthcare aren't high on the list. One could also argue that given Vijay’s character is able to uproot a gigantic ferris wheel to knock over a water tanker in order to douse a raging fire (which he then leaps into anyway, because you know, why not?), no one expects logic and realism from Mersal.

But these arguments all turn a blind eye to one important fact: GST has proved to be so confusing that no one seems to know how to comply with it. Under the circumstances, if Vijay said something about GST in an authoritative tone, we’ll believe it simply because he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Which is more than can be said for the government-issued guidelines for GST. So yes, I feel Mr. Raja’s pain. If the choice is between decoding the jargon surrounding GST and taking Vijay’s word for it, Mr. Raja’s got good reason to fear we’d take Vijay’s word for it, ferris wheel or no ferris wheel. It's a minor detail that Vijay's character's real grouse is with the medical establishment than the GST. An even more minor detail is that Vijay is acting in a movie rather than delivering a campaign speech. However, when his character's name is also Vijay, can we really blame Mr. Raja for not being able to sift fiction from fact? If you said yes, you're just mean or anti-national. (Or both.) 

It's tempting to feel just a little bit superior to Mr. Raja and his clan because a few things are as obvious as a villain in a Tamil blockbuster. One, there are Vijay fans among BJP workers. Two, the party is a bit of a bully. Three, the GST is clearly a sore topic because the fact that Mr. Raja singled out one line of dialogue and one unimportant scene out of a 169-minute film says more about his and BJP's insecurity than the wisdom contained in Atlee and S. Ramana Girivasan's dialogues. Unfortunately, the liberal heart can't puff up with smugness because the producers of Mersal have reportedly decided to not get into a fight with the BJP in Tamil Nadu, a state not known to be a BJP stronghold. You can't feel superior while bending over a la downward dog. It seems the reference to GST will be cut along with a scene that the party deemed offensive because it cracks a joke at Digital India’s expense. 

Mersal had been cleared by the CBFC, it’s had a crackerjack opening at the box office, and Vijay’s fan base is both loyal and massive. GST, on the other hand, has few fans since it appears to have actually slowed the Indian economy down. The producers were on firm footing to resist the BJP’s demands and threats, but they decided to back down anyway. Suddenly, Mr. Raja's bluster is no longer just a cloud of hot air and absurdity. He's been made powerful by the fact that Mersal's producers have reportedly surrendered to him. 

No one should be surprised by this. For one, the Indian film industry and its legions of starstruck fans are about as incapable of accepting criticism as our present government. Commercial cinema in particular expects adoration and behaves like a spoilt brat when it doesn't get it. Under the circumstances, it makes sense that the industry is behaving like a sycophant since that's what it expects from others. 

Leaving my reviewer-flavoured cynicism aside, recent history shows our entertainment industry is principally opposed to developing a spine. Over the years, it's cheerfully allowed governments to dictate what is allowed on screen because as any producer will tell you, it’s show business and not activism. More often than not, if the CBFC demands a cut (or 21 cuts), producers will agree because they need to release the film by a certain date so that they don’t lose the release date. This isn't entirely unreasonable — to reschedule a film's release is not just a financial loss, it's also a logistical nightmare — but it does establish compromise as the norm. Also, at some points, you can't help but wish someone would take a moment to consider how badly the film is affected by those cuts.  

But then, as we've seen over the years, producers and distributors don't really care what is done to a film as long as it can be sold to the public. In the past, the film and television industries have accepted idiotic measures like the advisory against cigarette smoking that appears each time a cigarette appears on screen. On cable channels, movies and foreign television shows are regularly edited so that kisses and sex scenes are removed. For instance, if you watch Dayavan on TV, you won’t see Vinod Khanna and Madhuri Dixit canoodling carnally — even though this film was certified by CBFC and shown complete with the canoodle in theatres. In 1988.

Let that soak in for a moment. Our commercial cinema was more daring in 1988 than it is in 2017.

Words ranging from ‘beef’ to ‘witch’ to ‘dick’ are muted even though there’s no law that requires a channel to do this. It's done voluntarily to ensure conservative sensibilities aren't offended, as though conservative people aren't given access to a remote control and are chained to the sofa, forced to endure programming that they find objectionable. You as a paying subscriber to a channel may miss the punchline, a critical detail or the kiss that made you sigh longingly when you saw the film on screen, but who cares? The channel’s on air, the advertisement slots have been sold and the producer’s made money by selling the telecast rights. Shame on you for expecting to see the whole film or unedited television show. Instead of griping about what’s been cut, we’re to be grateful that there’s at least something on screen that isn’t Chitrahaar. And hello, what's internet piracy there for anyway? Get thee to a VPN. 

Call it bending over, spread-eagling or whatever other yoga position you prefer (shavasana, or the pose of the corpse sounds fitting), but when the industry is ready to self-censor, a government doesn’t really need to make the effort of imposing a censorship. It just needs to indicate what it likes and doesn’t like, and the captains of entertainment will hop to it. Remember how Toilet Ek Prem Katha made a point of informing the audience how awesome Swachh Bharat and demonetisation are? So what if the first is metaphorically going down the drain and the second has knocked out a bunch of industries the way Vijay does villains. The film was a hit and no one questioned the accuracy of the claims being made. Ergo, all’s well that ends well.

There is a silver lining for Mersal in all this. A scene that no one noticed when the film released has become is now a nation-wide talking point with its own trending hashtag, #MersalvsModi. It's not like Vijay needed the extra fame, but he's now a national figure rather than a Tamil hero and has made some north Indian minds reel because, EGAD! HE'S JOSEPH VIJAY CHANDRASHEKHAR and therefore obviously out to destroy the Hindu rashtra. (Ignore that bit in the credits that lists Vijayendra Prasad of Baahubali fame as one of Mersal's writers.) Plus, I'm willing to bet that clips of the deleted scenes would have started circulating on millions of smartphones before you can spell 'Thalapathy'. 

At least in short term, this culture of compliance makes pragmatic sense. It protects the producers, distributors and channels who are responsible for both investing in projects and profiting from them. The real challenge is for writers and directors who must create despite crippling restrictions, but who cares about them? In a system where stars and producers wield all the power and the plot is the first thing that will be offered up for sacrifice, creative freedom is very low in the list of priorities. 

However, in the long run, with the internet and all that’s accessible online, you’ve got to wonder whether this 'pragmatism' isn't stupidly shortsighted. Television has a massive number of viewers, but it’s also losing eyeballs to the internet where viewers get a wider variety of programmes that aren’t bound by the restraints placed on regular commercial content. The film industry is constantly palpitating about its box office returns. Fewer people are buying tickets (GST isn’t helping) and the incentive to see a film on big screen withers when you know there’s an unedited version you could watch at home. The move is gradual, yes, but audiences are turning away from the traditional channels of entertainment and one of the reasons is that they like what they're seeing online better. It's a shift that telecom companies will encourage because they stand to profit from the data packs we use.

Now imagine knowing that all the entertainment that is produced locally will be studiously sanskari, with nary a niggle of excitement. No angry young men, no firebrand heroines, no love scenes, no rage against the system, no underdogs who win, no rousing speeches — does that sound like it’s worth an audience’s hard-earned cash?

Just for the sake of profit, it might be worth investing a little money into entertainment that doesn’t toe the line. If you give audiences access to uncensored content, they're hungry for it and they're going to get hungrier as our films and television shows become blander and more repetitive. Who knows? Maybe resistance could prove to be profitable.