The most comprehensive film on Bhopal

The Supreme Court ruled recently, in reference to Beyond Genocide, a film on the Bhopal gas disaster, that Doordarshan cannot curtail the Constitutional right to freedom of expression

By Sevanti Ninan
Published: Tuesday 15 September 1992

SEEING Beyond Genocide again after four years can bring back the anger and frustration one felt when visiting Bhopal shortly after the Union Carbide gas leak and wandering through JP Nagar and the MIC ward of Hamidia Hospital.

In 1988, Doordarshan declared that a film on this unending tragedy was too dated to telecast, although it suddenly decided to telecast it late one night in early 1992. Even today, Beyond Genocide, made by Tapan Bose and Suhasini Mullay, still moves the viewer. As the Supreme Court observed in a judgement on the film last month, "It is even today of relevance."

This 80-minute narration of how things unfolded after the poisonous MIC (methyl isocyanite) gas leak on the night of December 3, 1984, covers the first 10 months of confusion, panic and vacillation on the part of the state government. Unfortunately, the film is marred by sentences such as, "It was part of the game the government and the multinational was playing out in an American court..." But its most enduring vignette is the final one of an MIC baby, Zarina, breathing through a respirator, with a huge malevolent growth on her back. Mercifully, she lived only for 18 days.

Like other films about human tragedies that occur on Indian soil, Beyond Genocide has had a much wider airing abroad than in the country. But its makers were not willing to accept its blacking out here without a fight. Last month, the most painstaking documentary made so far on the Bhopal tragedy won its third court battle when the Supreme Court upheld an earlier verdict of the Delhi High Court that a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution cannot be arbitrarily curtailed by mere guidelines cited by Doordarshan. The government had gone in appeal against the High Court verdict. However, illogically, Doordarshan telecast the film even as its appeal was pending.

The judgement should come as very good news for the growing body of documentary film-makers in this country who choose to focus on conflicts between the state and the people and on environment issues that adversely affect the poor and voiceless. Even though the only real outlet in India for their films is Doordarshan, getting on to this timid network has been, by and large, a losing battle.

Beyond Genocide had to go to court a few months after it was completed in 1986 when it became obvious that the censor board was dithering over granting it a certificate. A judge of the Bombay High Court then issued a writ of mandamus directing the board to issue a U certificate to the film. Later, even though it won the Golden Lotus award for the best non-feature film, Doordarshan refused to telecast it, reneging on ministerial promise that all award-winning films would be telecast. Cinemart Foundation, the makers of Beyond Genocide, went to court again. Other film-makers like Anand Patwardhan, whose Hamara Shahar (on slum-dwellers) was telecast only after a court battle, have taken similar recourse. Voices of Baliapal is yet another example of a film that won a national award, but was never telecast.

At issue is the refusal of a network run by public funds to telecast films that it considers politically inconvenient or critical of the Union or state government. Beyond Genocide features a commentary that becomes accusatory in places and floats a conspiracy theory about the kind of research Union Carbide was doing in India. Even the Union government in appealing the High Court's judgement, conceded its narration of events was factual. What the High Court has ruled and the Supreme Court has upheld is that the fundamental right of a citizen to exhibit films on Doordarshan as guaranteed under Article 19 (1)(a), can be curtailed under Article 19(2) only by a valid law and not merely by executive or departmental instructions, framed in the form of guidelines by Doordarshan.

After all, Doordarshan is a mere department of the Union government and it is not a statutory body. Because it derives its powers to censor from the Censor Board, can it censor what the Board has passed? Doordarshan has been doing this for all these years and getting away with it. But now its power to impose guidelines of its own has been struck down. Does that spell opportunity for film-makers critical of the establishment's development policies? One hopes so.

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