If you’ve seen the Tamil film Master in a cinema hall last month, you might’ve noticed one glaring omission. It comes around the 35-minute mark, as a college professor, played by actor Vijay, is giving a lecture to his students.
“We are hearing but not listening,” Vijay’s character says. “Children don’t listen to their parents. Parents don’t listen to their children. And finally,” he smiles, stretching his arms, “the ... doesn’t listen to the people!”
The last sentence didn’t add up, since the crucial word in it was muted. But when the film released on Amazon Prime on 29 January, the original dialogue was intact: ‘The government doesn’t listen to the people!’ Only, the subtitle read, ‘The ___ doesn’t listen to the people!’
So, why did the filmmakers omit the word ‘government’ in the theatrical release? Because the Central Board of Film Certification (CFBC) asked for it.
A leaked copy of the alleged list of cuts to Master, released by a YouTube entertainment channel Filmic Reality, gives the full picture. As per an alleged copy of the censor certificate, of the 20 cuts approved by CBFC, the seventh says: ‘Muted the word “govt” in shot no. 347.’
The reason: ‘Defamation’.
As per the Cinematograph Act, 1952, the CBFC can decide what constitutes defamation. While the CBFC didn't respond to Mint's emails requesting comment, a source from the body, requesting anonymity, said the cut was due to "repercussive effects of certain words", adding, "You can point at a specific event... but you cannot make a generalized statement."
Advocate Ameet Naik, founder of the Mumbai-based law firm Naik&Naik, disagrees. "In my view, there’s nothing defamatory. It is a depiction in a film. You have to particularize your claim on defamation. But this is a generic statement."
Naik was the legal counsel for filmmakers of Udta Punjab when it had challenged the CBFC's directions to remove the state's name from the film's title. At the time, the Bombay High Court had ruled in the filmmakers' favour, stating, "To bring out the inadequacy of the State effort or the indifference of the officers, etc., cannot amount to an attack on any political party if the criticism is genuine and objective and made in good faith."
"You thus can’t say you delete this word and do it," says Naik. "[The case of Master] divorces the right of freedom of speech and expression."
The film’s producer Lalit Kumar and director Lokesh Kanagraj didn’t respond to Mint’s calls and text messages.
At best, the CBFC's directions seem selective. In the 2013 film Satyagraha, a character played by Amitabh Bachchan was allowed to voice a similar complaint against the government: "Humne kaisa desh banaya hai jahan sarkar hi humse kat gayi hai (What type of country have we become where the government is not connected to the public)." In the Vinod Kumar-starrer Koyelaanchal (2014), the veteran actor goes a step further to say, "Is desh ma ek hi mafia hai ... woh hai sarkar. (There is only one mafia in the country, and that is the government)."
But then, Vijay seems to have fallen foul of the establishment in recent years. In 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state president of Tamil Nadu, Tamilisai Soundararajan, demanded that a dialogue in his film Mersel must be removed for its negative portrayal of the goods and services tax (GST), demonetisation and Digital India scheme.
In the film, Vijay’s character asks why Singapore charges “lower GST, and yet, provides free healthcare” while India “levies a GST of 28 per cent and cannot provide quality medical care”.
In February 2020, the income tax department raided his house to purportedly investigate unpaid taxes for the salaries he’d received for the movies Bigil and Master. A month later, sources told the online portal The News Minute that “nothing of significance” had been recovered from the residence and the actor had paid all necessary taxes.