January 29, 2018
On the Tales of Two Movies
You’d think they would know better by now. Last week, Russian police descended upon Moscow’s Pioneer Cinema, a theater whose only crime appears to have been their decision to screen the UK comedy The Death of Stalin, a film which has been condemned by Russian officials as insulting. Soon after, the theater announced that “for reasons beyond [their] control” all future showings had been cancelled. To its credit, Pioneer Cinema had been the only theater willing to play the film, and there is already talk of it being prosecuted for doing so without a license.
Meanwhile, in India the film Padmaavat has finally opened in cinema, although in not nearly as many as was originally hoped for. The film has been awash with controversy for more than a year. In January of 2017, acts of vandalism delayed production. Two months later, rumors began to circulate of a “romantic dream sequence” involving the film’s lead characters, a Hindu queen named Padmavati and Allauddin Khilji, a 14th-century Muslim leader, and no amount of denials could persuade protesters that no such scene actually existed. In the eyes of protesters, such a scene would be scandalous, as legend has it, Padmavati set herself on fire to protect herself from Khilji. The protests didn’t stop there. Posters for the movie have been burned, its director slapped in public, and its lead actress threatened with disfigurement and – even worse - beheading.
Fortunately, common sense won out. On January 18, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Dipak Misra declared “Cinemas are an inseparable part of [the] right to free speech and expression. States… cannot issue notifications prohibiting the screening of a film.” In Russia, there is less optimism regarding the fate of The Death of Stalin. It is entirely likely that the film will disappear completely from theaters.
Here’s the thing, though. This kind of censorship is never successful. India experienced this years ago with Fire, another film that angered a number of people. The more you protest something, the more you try to block people’s ability to assess it for themselves or to decide whether to watch it in the first place, the more attention you draw to it. This was the case with the early films of Yimou Zhang, Seth Rogen’s film The Interview, or even something like Salt of the Earth, a 1954 film banned during the chaotic years of McCarthyism.
Even today, the phrase “banned in” remains an effective selling point for both distributors and audience members. Movies we would never have heard of and may never have cared to see become cause-celebres because of the overzealous reactions of some governments to anything that could be interpreted as critical or threatening to their long-term stability. Standing up for such films becomes a vital test of people’s values, and the films are sought out and watched in small art-house cinemas, large local theaters, and people’s living rooms through DVD, Blu-ray, or services like MUBI. In other words, they acquire an importance that they might not have otherwise. As proof of this, look at the most recent box office numbers in the United States. Padmaavat made more than $4.5 million in its opening weekend.
As for me, I would probably have seen The Death of Stalin even if it had not been banned in Russia. The subject seems interesting, and I generally like political satire. However, I’m not sure I would have had much interest in Padmaavat. After all, a historical, song-and-dance-filled film about a character whom many historians doubt existed does not necessarily interest me, but now my curiosity has been piqued. As I said, they should have known better.