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BW Businessworld

Let’s Fight Control With Nirbhaya

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Filmmaker leslee udwin couldn’t have hoped for a better opening for her India’s Daughter. Before a Delhi magistrate’s midnight ban order could be imposed, close to a million people had seen the one-hour sensitive portrayal of Nibhaya’s grieving but proud parents on YouTube, Vimeo and other social media sites.

Political action was quick and vitriolic. First lawmakers across party lines bayed for Udwin’s blood in Parliament. They faulted her for showing footage of rapist Mukesh Singh in Tihar Jail justifying the rape. It gave the rapist a platform, they complained. Television channels NDTV and BBC were scheduled to air the film on Women’s Day. But the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting issued an advisory against broadcasting the film. Home minister Rajnath Singh said he would ensure the film was not seen in India or abroad.

The impact was the opposite of what the government had bargained for. NDTV pulled out, but BBC advanced the broadcast date to 7 March and went ahead with it. In Britain, BBC’s Channel 4 reported 350,000 viewers at peak, a record for the 10-11 pm slot. There were more than 100,000 downloads from the BBC online link. Before YouTube and Vimeo went to town with it three days later, more than 500,000 people had watched or downloaded the film. Without the controversy, the film would not have garnered all the eyeballs.

The battle lines on the film were both sharp and predictable. While the Indian government condemned the film, the BBC said the “film handles the issue responsibly”. The Editors Guild in India agreed with the BBC and called on the government to revoke the ban. Interestingly, a section of the feminist movement opposed the film arguing that “India’s Daughter actually locates the ugly rape culture mindset in the rapists and their defence lawyers, and it does not show how the same mindset is shared by those who are within the legal and judicial system.”

For me, a viewer, the Nirbhaya film was a bolt from the blue. Were there men out there like Mukesh Singh and his lawyers who actually thought that a “woman was a flower inside the house” and “could be taken away by dogs” if she ventured out in the street? Udwin has created a mirror to reflect on our society’s deepest, darkest cultural faultlines. And, somewhat expectedly, the country’s lawmakers and conscience keepers are uncomfortable seeing their own faces in that mirror.

But the ban on the film raises a far more serious issue. As a viewer, do I not have the right to view a serious film made on the people and what went on behind the horrific 16 December 2012 Delhi bus rape case? There is no obscenity in the movie, nor salacious dialogue or anything that is likely to create social tension or communal riots. A rapist and his defence lawyers speak their mind on tape. It is the first time we are hearing the views ‘from the other side’. The government, or the feminists, may differ with the filmmaker, but let us see the film and make up our minds.

And, finally, there is the question of regulation which has got lost in this fiery debate. For over a decade now, there has been a demand to shift control of content on TV channels away from the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to an autonomous regulator. We have repeatedly seen in the past how the government panders to scores of pressure groups and bans or armtwists broadcasters and filmmakers at the drop of a hat. The truth is the government is slave to a host of interests save the interest of what constitutes ‘viewable content’. In the past weeks, we have seen the ‘ban’ culture threatening the roots of democracy. Ban beef; ban cuss words in films; ban the Christmas holiday…the list goes on!

It is, therefore, high time to put an end to this ‘ban raaj’. The task of determining what is viewable content; and whether or not it violates basic norms relating to gender, caste, religion and human values should be left to an autonomous body like the Office of Communications (Ofcom) in the UK and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US.
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 06-04-2015)