Mumbai: The Supreme Court’s refusal to grant interim protection to Team ‘Tandav’ and its observation that actors cannot play roles hurting the ‘religious sentiments of others’ has led to consternation in the industry with many insiders worried about the road ahead for India’s ‘soft power’.
A day after the apex court ruling on the starry political saga from Amazon Prime Video from which several scenes have already been cut, most Bollywood biggies were silent. However, there were others, including Hansal Mehta, Pritish Nandy and Konkona Sen Sharma, who spoke of the line between art and the artiste being blurred and the implications of it. Some asked how actors could be held accountable for who they played on screen.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court declined to grant interim protection from any coercive action to ‘Tandav’ director Ali Abbas Zafar, actor Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub and others facing multiple FIRs for allegedly hurting religious sentiments. The court observed that “freedom of speech and expression is not absolute” and is subject to restrictions.
Ayyub’s lawyer defended the alleged objectionable part of the web series, saying that as an actor he has no artistic control over dialogues spoken by him. “You cannot take up role without reading script. You cannot play role hurting religious sentiments of others,” the bench remarked.
Viewing the observations with alarm, several said it exposes actors, whose very job is to play varied characters, to legal trouble.
Sharing the news report about the SC order, actor Konkona Sen Sharma tweeted, “Almost all involved in the show have read the script and signed the contract! Let’s arrest the whole cast and crew?”
Actor Guahar Khan, who plays a pivotal role in ‘Tandav’, used a series of monocled emojis depicting scrutiny to respond to a Twitter user who said, “Excellent. Next people playing murderers on screen might be tried for the same. After all, they read the script”.
Screenwriter-lyricist Mayur Puri, whose works include “Om Shanti Om” and “Happy New Year”, said it was “ridiculous” to hold an actor responsible for the actions of a fictional character.
Puri said the decision has set a dangerous precedent, one which clearly blurs the line between the art and the artiste.
“What I thought was particularly alarming was making a creator or an actor responsible for what a character does. That’s fiction! By that logic, you’d say Amrish Puri was a bad person. He wasn’t, he just played those characters. You can’t hold him responsible. It’s a rather stringent interpretation of the law, it’s blindsided. It’s completely unwarranted,” Puri told PTI.
“So from now on we have to play characters that are exactly who we are. Dear directors, writers & producers are you by any chance writing a role for a nomadic nerd identifying as a cisgender straight woman who is 5’8″ and just the right amount of weird & wonderfully astounding?” tweeted “Scam 1992” actor Shreya Dhanwanthary.
At the centre of the controversy is a scene that shows Ayyub’s student leader Shiva playing Bholenath, another name for Lord Mahadev, in a college theatrical production, for which the makers apologised and even decided to implement changes under pressure.
Filmmaker Onir, who described the apex court decision as sad, said the entire industry should be protesting as it affects everybody.
“Somehow that collective voice is missing, for whatever reasons it seems to be divided but it is absolutely unfortunate,” Onir told PTI, also citing the backlash faced by shows such as ‘Leila’, ‘A Suitable Boy’ and ‘Mirzapur’.
“There is no end to this. It is very sad that we are turning our country into a space which will suffocate art. Different opinions flourish and it is ok, one can criticize, debate but don’t throttle it. It is extremely sad that something like this is happening, especially when the platform has already reedited the series,” he said.
At the end of the day, art is supposed to push boundaries, create dialogue, debate and hold a mirror to society so that it reflects what is happening around, he added.
Producer Pritish Nandy, who has produced the International Emmy-nominated show ‘Four More Shots Please’, said people have the right to disapprove or criticise but intimidating a creative team is just wrong.
“We are globally recognised for our content today. That is why it is so sad to see what is happening to shows like ‘Tandav’ and ‘Mirzapur’ which have had phenomenal response otherwise? There are far simpler remedies available. Use those,” Nandy told PTI.
The writer-producer said suppression of the creative voice would diminish India’s role as a global soft power.
“We are becoming more and more intolerant. Fringe groups are trying to set the creative agenda for India. This is tragic and self defeating because India is a phenomenally talented nation and to suppress its talent, its genius would be grossly unfair.”
Don’t take the service if ‘you don’t have the stomach for good content’, was his advice.
“At the heart of all creativity is freedom. Enjoy the freedom. Allow others to celebrate their freedom. And the world will be a better place,” he added.
Filmmaker Hansal Mehta asked his followers on Twitter, “Arnab or Tandav? Which is more dangerous?” He was referring to TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami whose purported WhatsApp chats have caused a huge controversy.
Following up on the tweet, he further wrote, “Deep Sidhu or Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub?”
Deep Sidhu, an actor and activist, has been named by Delhi Police in an FIR in connection with Red Fort incidents.
Actor Mohan Kapur, known for featuring films such as “Mission Mangal”, “Bodyguard” and is set to star in “Ms Marvel” series, added his voice to the chorus of concern.
“#Tandav on @PrimeVideoIN is nothing but a brilliantly essayed political drama with top notch performances by each & everyone! The show has NOTHING objectionable.
“There is none, not one, zero, nada, zip, zilch mention of any deity for anyone to take any umbrage,” he tweeted.
Responding to a news alert on SC’s decision on ‘Tandav’, actor Richa Chadha tweeted: Priorities of the apex court!
Congress leader and lawyer Kapil Sibal also weighed in on the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Tandav Opinion of courts remind me of a pendulum which swings to one way to the other depending on who decides. Such swings betray the cause of justice,” he wrote on Twitter.
In November last year, the government brought OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar besides other online news and current affairs content under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, giving it powers to regulate policies and rules for the digital space.
So far, there was no law or autonomous body governing digital content in India.