(Disclaimer: This article is a work of public critique of judicial reasoning, written without malice, in public interest, and with no intention to bring disrepute to the institution of judiciary. Any inference of contempt, whether real or ideological, is purely incidental.)
"Western filmmakers have refrained from ridiculing Lord Jesus or the Prophet but Hindi filmmakers have done this repeatedly and are still doing this most unabashedly with Hindu gods and goddesses," remarked the Allahabad High Court, an observation clearly ignorant about film history. The court's observations came in their rejection of the anticipatory bail plea of Aparna Purohit, the Amazon Prime Video executive who has been booked in several FIRs across the country for hurting religious sentiments with the alleged derogatory depiction of Hindu deities in Tandav.
Unless you have been living under a rock for over a century, you would know blasphemy is perhaps a genre unto itself in Western cinema. For as long as films have been made, God and religion have been scrutinised, satirised and scorned. While many of them may have attracted controversy, boycott calls, and death threats, history has been kinder to them once cooler heads prevailed.
The problem with Allahabad High Court's decision is perhaps best summed up in Stanley Kramer’s 1960 drama Inherit the Wind, where Spencer Tracy's lawyer Henry Drummond defends a man convicted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in a school that prohibits it. In a key scene, Drummond quizzes a young witness named Howard on his thoughts on Darwinism. The boy replies that he is yet to make up his mind. Drummond argues it's Howard's freedom to make up his own mind that is on trial. The same argument has to be made with the court's decision on Tandav. It's the subscriber’s prerogative if he wants to watch the show or not. That's part of the benefit and appeal to how on-demand streaming services work. If the court makes up the mind for the viewers, it's a clear infringement of their freedom to choose.
The bigger worry is this could be a catalyst for more censorship on OTT content. In most cases when a film is said to "offend religious sentiments," there are always political, rather than theological, actors at play. These institutions draw a clear line between the sacred and the profane to create a Manichaean moral order. Thus, anything that crosses this line is considered blasphemous. But criticism of religion cannot be off-limits when it shapes — directly or indirectly — so much of public policy even in secular nations.
Drawing upon a couple millennia of Christian belief and iconography, Western filmmakers have questioned and challenged their own faith. The Last Supper is populated by a band of unruly vagrants in Luis Bunuel's 1961 Spanish satire Viridiana. Christ's position is superseded by a blind beggar, suggesting blindness as a pre-requisite for faith. Buñuel in fact made a career of offending religious and bourgeois sensibilities. Go back as far as 1930's L'Age d'Or, in which a man dressed like Christ emerges from a murderous orgy where scalps of dead women hang from a cross. Now hailed as “a Surrealist masterpiece”, it was banned for decades after riots erupted at its premiere. Blasphemous orgies are also a defining feature of Ken Russell's nuns-gone-wild provocation, The Devils.
Not all films are dark and debauched though. Monty Python turned the Bible into an irreverent comedy about religious hysteria in Life of Brian. A man born in a stable next door to Jesus gets mistaken for the Messiah by the masses, and suffers a similar fate. Only, here it culminates in a crucifixion that is a musical number. Christ also starred in his own musical (Jesus Christ Superstar). Gods have been sued (The Man Who Sued God), voiced by Rob Zombie (Super), and appeared as Alanis Morissette (Dogma) and Morgan Freeman (Bruce Almighty).
Atheistic auteurs have used religion to explore everyday themes. For instance, Jean-Luc Godard reflected on changing gender roles, and the struggle to reconcile spirituality with materialism in Je vous salue, Marie. He does this by transposing the story of Nativity to modern-day France, where Mary is a gas station attendant passionate about football and Joseph a cab driver. Not once does it feel blasphemous in any way. Catholic guilt and redemption have been a common theme in many a Martin Scorsese movie. But even an attempt to humanise the Son of God in The Last Temptation of Christ was not without controversy. Scorsese imagined a Jesus struggling with doubt over his mission, and became a target of death threats. But it didn't stop him from revisiting the same themes throughout his career. More recently, Darren Aronofsky drew the ire of the religious right for his literal retelling of a Biblical story in Noah, and dressing it up in environmental allegories in mother!
Religion, like any institution, requires an independent agency to scrutinise its actions. The press played that role in Spotlight, which followed the team of investigative journalists who uncovered the Catholic Church's long history of systemic child abuse and cover-ups in Boston. François Ozon turned his gaze towards the survivors of a similar scandal in Lyon in By the Grace of God. Pablo Larraín's The Club serves a more provocative moral drama as disgraced clergymen try to atone for their sins in seclusion. Side note: none of them received calls of boycott despite how damaging they all were to the Catholic Church's reputation.
Western cinema however has refrained from portraying Prophet Muhammad as Islam forbids any pictorial depiction of its founder. It didn't stop South Park though. But filmmakers have had considerable trouble portraying Muslims in contexts outside of their religion. They have mostly stuck to Islamophobic shorthand, villainising Muslims as terrorists and jihadi extremists. The trend, which began with films like Rambo III and True Lies, was reinforced post-9/11 with shows like 24 and films like American Sniper.
The Islamic revolution in Iran didn't stop its filmmakers from condemning its radical stranglehold. Even under strict censorship restrictions, Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi have made films that prize allusion over direct confrontation with the establishment and the extremist forces that run it. Iranian filmmakers have in fact made a virtue of omission. It's what isn't in the frame that makes their movies all the more powerful. Panahi has circumvented prison sentences and decade-long bans to make This Is Not a Film, Closed Curtain, Taxi and 3 Faces. The question that divides the couple in Farhadi's A Separation is interestingly whether or not or leave Iran. Marjane Satrapi, who escaped Iran's oppressive regime at the age of 14, recounted her coming-of-age tale in the graphic memoir and film, Persepolis. She was branded "anti-revolutionary," but continues to be critical of the Iranian government even under exile. While they may not "ridicule the Prophet", these filmmakers know first-hand how reactionary elements take hold and gradually suppress public opinion. Vital lessons in there for Modi's India too.
As illustrated, Western filmmakers have not refrained from ridiculing their Gods, and they have done it “most unabashedly.” In today’s India however, censorship of cinema and OTT platforms on religious grounds arises from a desire to politicize art. Besides the reasonable restrictions of hate speech, no religious belief, person or iconography should be insulated from criticism. Giving in to the right-wing crusade will only negate decades of social progress in India. Let Tracy's Drummond sound the alarm bells: "Fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, with banners flying and with drums beating, we’ll be marching backward through the glorious ages of that 16th century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind."