India's Supreme Court Overturns Partial Ban on 'Aarakshan'

The controversial film on education system was released worldwide last week but was originally banned by the Uttar Pradesh state government.

NEW DELHI – India's Supreme Court cleared the release of controversial film Aarakshan (Reservation) in Uttar Pradesh after that state's government had banned the film which opened worldwide on Aug. 12.

Directed by Prakash Jha and starring top talent such as Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, actor Saif Ali Khan and actress Deepika Padukone, the estimated $9 million budgeted Aarakshan tackles the much debated subject of India's caste-based reservation system in educational and government positions. The quota-based system is aimed to support India's lower castes such as the Dalits.

While protests against the film were building up even after Aarakshan was cleared for release by India's film censor board, two other states – Punjab and Andhra Pradesh -- also issued ban orders but these were overturned soon after Jha filed an appeal last week in the Supreme Court challenging the Uttar Pradesh government's order which banned the film for two months.
Responding to the UP government's stance that the film's release could create a law and order problem -- given the central Indian state has a substantial Dalit population and with a chief minister from the same community – the Supreme Court judgement said that “it is for the state to maintain law and order effectively and meaningfully”.

Further rejecting the UP government's plea that the film's controversial subject of reservation was a sensitive issue, the judgement added that “reservation is a social issue and in a vibrant democracy like ours, public discussion is necessary. Such discussion on social issues bring about awareness for effective working of the democracy.”

Expectedly, by not opening in India's most populous state and a crucial market for any film, Aarakshan's release could have seen a stronger figure than the estimated $5.5 million (Rupees 250 million) opening weekend gross.

Aarakshan has been globally released today. There is no law and order situation in the states in which it is released. A film is a perishable commodity and the first weekend attributes to a larger portion of the revenues for a theatrical release,” Jha said in his petition filed last week.

Considering that there have been earlier cases where films have run into trouble even after being cleared by the censor board – such as 2007's musical Aaja Nach Le (Come Dance With Me) which was also banned by the UP government until the producers apologised for an alleged deragatory reference to the Dalits in a song -- the Aarakshan case could be a benchmark. “Once the Central Board for Film Certification has cleared the film for public viewing, the screening cannot be prohibited in a manner as has been done by the UP government,” said the Supreme Court judgement.
Writing on his blog, Amitabh Bachchan welcomed the order “reassuring all of us and the people in general that the rule of law prevails in this country." He also added, “Will those that opposed the film and stopped its distribution and exhibition now compensate the producer for deliberate and illegal procedures used for harming the financials of the product ? I guess not.”