Overruling the objections of Centre, the High Court of Kerala has passed an order allowing the screening of Anand Patwardhan's documentary "Reason/Vivek" at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival ongoing at Thiruvananthapuram at present.
The Court observed that the apprehension that the documentary might affect law and order was not a valid reason to withhold sanction. Even as per the guidelines framed by the I&B Ministry in this regard, the screening of the documentary is permissible, said the Court.
Justice Shaji P Chaly, who passed the order, has however clarified that the documentary should not be screened elsewhere.
This was made in the writ petition filed by Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, the organizer of the festival, against the refusal of the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to grant sanction to screen the documentary. Patwardhan had joined as a second petitioner in the case.
"Reason/Vivek", explores the rise of religious fundamentalism in India in the backdrop of murder of rationalists and progressive thinkers such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M M Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh etc. It showcases the surge in right-wing violence in the form of cow-vigilantism, atrocities against Dalits and attacks on intellectuals and artists.
For public exhibition of motion pictures which are not certified by the Central Board of Film Certification, the Central Government has to grant special exemption under Section 9 of the Cinematograph Act 1952.
On May 27, the Academy had submitted application seeking exemption for 161 documentaries which were selected for screening in the festival from June 21 to June 26. In the list of documentaries cleared by the Union Ministry furnished on June 17, 'Vivek/Reason' was absent.
Explaining the reason for rejection, the Ministry later responded on June 24 that clearance was withheld as the "theme of the documentary was sensitive in nature and may have law and order ramifications".
The petition challenged this reasoning by stating that mere apprehension of law and order breakdown is not a valid ground to suppress free speech.
The petitioners placed reliance on a 2017 judgement of the Kerala High Court, which had quashed Centre's denial of sanction to screen the documentaries 'March, March, March' and 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' in the Documentary Festival.
The ground of "law and order disturbance" in the Central guidelines for granting exemption has to be read as "public order" as mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Constitution, the Court had held in that case.
"It is necessary to mention in this context that our Constitution guarantees not only social and economic justice, but also political justice. The freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution would therefore, include the right to express one's political views as well. Film is a legitimate and effective medium in which issues of general concern can be treated, subject of course to the reasonable restrictions on grounds set out under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. The said right includes the right to criticize the policies of the Governments in power also", the single bench of the Court had observed while approving the screening of documentaries on the protests in JNU and suicide of Rohit Vemula.
Patwardhan, a winner of several international and national awards, is no stranger to controversies as his earlier works such as "Ram Ke Naam" (on Babri Masjid demolition), "Father, Sun and Holy War"( on post Babri riots), "A Narmada Diary" etc have invited protests from radical elements.