A day before the 16th Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) begins, the Bombay High Court heard a writ petition filed by two documentary filmmakers Anand Patwardhan and Pankaj Kumar alleging that their films were rejected by the respective selection committees in the national and international category because "they are critical of the current political dispensation or the political philosophy that they claim to espouse."
A division bench of Justice SC Dharmadhikari and Justice RI Chagla had asked Additional Solicitor General of India Anil Singh appearing for the Union I&B Ministry and MIFF, Director to submit on record the process followed by the said selection committee for rejecting these films.
ASG Singh began his submissions by highlighting that over 650 films were submitted for selection and a total of only 59 were selected in the national category.
"There were too many films in the national category and three separate committees selected the films for exhibition in the international category..
The petitioners agreed to the terms of selection at the time of submission and the Committee members are all experts in their field", ASG Singh argued and went on to state the marks given to the petitioner's films.
Justice Dharmadhikari then observed-
"You see the impression (of petitioners) is that so long as the documentary is critical of the current political dispensation, it will not be allowed to be screened.
For example, once there was a litigant who was against the system of Gharanas in music, he was not against the music but the system of Gharanas, now he has an opinion and he is entitled to it. People may have their views and you cannot stop them you see.
The impression which is given is that the present government does not want anything to be put out in public which stands against them. The petitioners feel that their films have been targeted and excluded because they are against the current political dispensation's views. That should not happen."
Justice Dharmadhikari continued-
"Tomorrow there might be a film covering the entire Naxalite movement in India and the maker might be a former Naxalite himself. Now this need not be censured, if you try to bury every problem like this then that cannot be accepted."
Thereafter, referring to the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, Justice Dharmadhikari said-
"Suppose today there is a film made on the current student unrest, now if you try to stop it, with social media you will not be able to. It will get more publicity outside all over the world."
ASG Singh then replied-
"I fully agree with your lordships. But in this case, it is a competition and if out of so many films, their (petitioner's) films were rejected then there must be films better than these three films."
"You should have an open dialogue with people, Courts need not be bothered for everything. Unfortunately what is happening is, with social media misinformation is spread. If we had an atmosphere where there is a free flow of opinions and ideas then there will be no misinformation or misunderstanding. But when we become oversensitive we tend to overreact."
The bench then turned to Senior Advocate Mihir Desai, who was appearing for the petitioners. Desai submitted that Patwardhan's film Vivek/Reason was selected for the International Documentary and Short Film Festival held in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala last year but the Union Ministry had opposed it saying that screening the film may cause law and order problems.
Then the Kerala High Court had permitted the screening of the same film.
"There was an attempt to stop the screening even before watching it. There is a pattern here."
"Movies made by the Films Division are propaganda films. The petitioner's film was accepted by the Oscars (Academy Award) and it is not good enough for their festival" Desai said.
Patwardhan's award winning film 'Vivek/Reason' documents the ascendancy of a particular political ideology in recent times. Murders of MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, Gauri Lankesh and Govind Pansare are also covered in the film. The relation of these cases to various sectarian outfits is also explained.
Apart from this, the said film looks at "the violent attacks on Muslims and Dalits in the name of cow protection, the caste-based discrimination that led to the suicide of young student leader and scholar Rohith Vemula, and numerous other outbursts of violence, large and small, connecting them to present an overview of the turmoil that India is presently witnessing."
Whereas, Pankaj Kumar's movie Janani's Julie' follows the story of Indianostrum, a Puducherry based theatre group, which, disturbed by a spate of honour killings in India, sets out to introspect the implications of caste, class and gender.
His second entry, 'Two Flags' chronicles the life and politics of Puducherry.
The petitioners had cited examples of five separate films made by filmmakers other than them which tackled similar subjects and were also rejected.
After hearing both parties, the bench noted that once it has been laid out by the Films Division and the Union Ministry that so many films were submitted for selection and the films made by both petitioners were shown to the members of the committee, much cannot be done by the Court.
Looking at Mihir Desai, Justice Dharmadhikari said- "You may have an expectation, but it is not a right" (to be selected).
Thus, after taking instructions, Desai agreed to withdraw the petition.