A petition by a Congress worker was admitted in the Delhi High Court seeking removal of “offensive scenes” from the Netflix series Sacred Games. Among several points, the plea contends the show incorrectly depicts historical events like the Bofors scandal and Babri Masjid, and maligns former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Over the years, members of the Congress party have regularly accused the BJP of stifling free speech and crushing dissent. Yet, they have found plenty of faults in a work of fiction, suggesting they define a counter opinion as against the law. Disregarding the fact that a scriptwriter has the artistic licence of giving his characters opinions that shape and propel the story forward, Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi said: “Using freedom of speech to spread lies is not appreciable— lies which have been projected by the BJP for political gains.” (The Indian Express, July 12)
The producers of Sacred Games must be very relieved that they didn’t make the far graver error of portraying India’s current crop of ruling leaders, derogatorily. In these tumultuous times, the retaliation can be diabolical. When two-minute WhatsApp forwards are instigating wrathful lynch mobs, imagine what video footage cunningly manipulated to criticise someone beloved by the majority community could potentially do. But even though this protest by a Congress worker is filed following due legal process, it is an attempt to delegitimise an entire series because of a mere 10 lines. This is an alarming indication of what creative professionals trying to make films are really up against. While marketing wisdom suggests controversy piques interest and no publicity can be bad publicity, any act of proposed censorship is demoralising for the people involved. It’s true that the Indian film industry is financially wrought from this terrible trend of politically motivated violence and threats by fringe groups, that escalates in the days before a release.
In the condolence messages posted last week about the suicide of Alok Ravi Shankar, the scriptwriter of the edgy Ab Tak Chhappan, members of the film fraternity rued that so many people like him are out of work, depressed and frustrated. The space for alternate cinema, refreshing ideas like Hindi Medium or the darkly funny Newton is vanishing. After the debacle of Padmaavat, producers don’t want to take a chance on films remotely connected with political or religious content. It feels, lately, that no big release can make it to any type of screen, without a fight. The present government may not have a bone to pick with the dialogues of Sacred Games but they have a problem, yet again, with the smoking scenes. Luckily, for audiences (so far) online video streaming is not regulated. It’s a joy to be able to watch complete scenes of series without cable TV’s infuriating cuts in language and violence. God knows how long it’ll last.
Sacred Games, while far from perfect, is at least unapologetically gritty and its cinematic mayhem feels less stylised and more, inevitable. It’s an important moment in our cultural history that a fully Indian made series demonstrates an understated maturity and can hold its own against the big Netflix hits in this genre, like Narcos. That tiny minority who has never watched shows made by Indians, turned off by their cheesy themes, have found something that represents the same audaciousness of the greatest crime shows of the world. That is, till, the Union Health Ministry figures out how to outfox US-based platforms like Amazon Prime to get them to adhere to our rules and regulations, like the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003. According to the 2017 World Press Freedom survey, India dropped three spots to 136 last year. A similar survey doesn’t exist for film and entertainment but it is safe to presume that it would have dropped much more. Movies have always been cherished in India, as three precious hours of glorious escapism. The fun has gone out of it with staged dharnas and threats of nose choppings, the depressing new reality.