The Father of the Nation featured repeatedly in proceedings in Court No. 1 of the Supreme Court Thursday — as did his assassin, Nathuram Godse. In the course of arguments on a challenge to the ban imposed by some states on the release of Padmaavat, characters from the literature of ancient India came up, as did the works of two modern masters of Marathi theatre. Also, DH Lawrence, the English author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover — and Jesus Christ himself.
A Bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justice A M Khanwilkar and Justice D Y Chandrachud heard — and participated in — a discussion on films, books and plays that have triggered controversy in the past. The Bench quashed the orders and notifications by state governments banning the release of Padmaavat, and restrained other states from taking similar steps. “If we go by this (the arguments against the film), 60% of literature, even classical literature of India, cannot be read,” the Chief Justice said.
Jesus Christ Superstar
The musical production, describing the last week of the life of Jesus before his crucifixion, had music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and debuted on Broadway in 1971. It took some artistic liberties with the account in the Holy Bible, including in its depiction of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, and in making a psychological assessment of Jesus himself. The show, and subsequent productions that were based on it, were condemned by some Christian groups as containing offensive or blasphemous language and content. A couple of countries banned the musical and a play based on it.
The epic love story of Nala and Damayanti appears in numerous texts, including in the Mahabharata and the 12th century Sanskrit poem Naishadha Charita of Sriharsha, as well as in translations in multiple languages, in Sufi and Bhakti adaptations, and in Raja Ravi Varma paintings. CJI Misra mentioned a translation of the story by a 19th century scholar from Odisha who “was a puritan influenced by Victorian morality”, and had “left out some parts (of the poem) saying he doesn’t think it should be read now”.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Senior Counsel Harish Salve, who appeared for Viacom18, Padmaavat’s producer, said Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D H Lawrence’s 1928 novel that was not published in the UK for over 30 years and for which Penguin Books faced obscenity charges, was still selling. The CJI remarked that in the Seventies, those who had not read the book were considered ill-qualified to discuss certain topics.
A case was filed against the 2010 film starring Aamir Khan and directed by Kiran Rao because of the word ‘dhobi’ in its title. Washermen’s organisations in various states claimed the content of the film was derogatory. As Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, CJI Misra had thrown out the case as frivolous, and fined the petitioners Rs 25,000 for their attempt to “abuse the process of law”.
Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy
The Marathi play by Pradeep Dalvi was denied staging permission for nearly a decade, and then banned by the Maharashtra and Kerala governments after only a few shows. The High Court and Supreme Court allowed the play to be staged in 2001, but Congress and NCP opposition to the alleged “glorification” of Gandhi’s killer ensured it didn’t have a prolonged run. The play was staged again in 2011. Justice D Y Chandrachud, who was on the Bench of the Bombay High Court that heard the case in 2001, recalled that then too, the state had argued that staging the play would disturb public order.
Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play was criticised for its depictions of violence and explicit references to sex, and for allegedly undermining the institution of marriage. The Maharashtra government first tried to stop its performance and, after the High Court intervened, wanted 32 cuts that effectively killed the play. The CJI cited the case of the play that was banned in 1974.
Jad Adams’s 2011 biography of Gandhi presented the Mahatma as a scheming, small man with a perverted attitude towards sex. The book led to an outcry and protests, and demands were raised for a ban on it. The CJI pointed out that courts had upheld the freedom of expression in the case of this book and another called The Men Who Killed Gandhi.