I have not seen Madras Café, a political thriller from Bollywood, which tells the story of an Indian intelligence agent on a secret mission during the Sri Lankan civil war. That was an exceptionally cruel war; one only has to see Channel 4’s searing reports or read Frances Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead or Gordon Weiss’s The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers to realise the gravity of that conflict.
Madras Cafe is a Bollywood film, a fictional feature based on real events – in this case, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) role in the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, on his comeback trail. (The LTTE assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, on his comeback trail, later saying it was “a blunder”.)
I haven’t seen the film because UK cinema chains Cineworld, Odeon and Vue, won’t let me. Apparently in response to protests from the local Tamil community, Cineworld issued an anodyne statement, saying: “Our policy is to show a wide range of films for different audiences. However, following customer feedback and working with the film distributors, we have decided to not show Madras Café. We apologise for any inconvenience.”
Customer feedback? Press reports suggested that some Tamils had complained that the film was anti-Tamil. The Facebook page of the Tamil Youth Organisation UK has been full of agitation against the film, but I was curious about the basis of the chain’s decision, so I asked them what kind of feedback they had received. Was it in writing or a phone call? Had the customers giving such feedback seen the film? (How, considering that the film was being released simultaneously worldwide on 23 August?) I also asked if it was normal practice for Cineworld to see customer feedback before showing each film. I’m not sure if Cineworld had shown any of the following films, so I wanted to know if they had sought prior customer feedback from any of the communities that may have been offended by films like “Borat” (Kazakhs), “LOC Kargil,” “Gadar: A Love Story”, or “Zero Dark Thirty” (Pakistanis), “Bruno” (gay people), “Waltz With Bashir” (Israelis), or the many American films critical of US foreign policy and Vietnam war? If not, why not? A Cineworld official sent me, again, the press release about customer feedback.
True, protests in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu has also led to the film being withdrawn from most cities there. Ransacking and attacking theatres is not unusual in India. But this is Britain. I wanted to know if there had been a violent threat, and if so, did the theatre seek police protection. But we didn’t reach that far.
Have we learned nothing? A quarter century ago, Muslims in Bradford burned copies of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses because the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on the novelist. At that time, some in Britain didn’t want anything to do with the problem. Outraged by the intellectual acquiescence of some, Hanif Kureishi wrote the fine novel, The Black Album ridiculing the fundamentalists and the fair-weather free speech defenders.
At that time of The Satanic Verses protests, while some bookshops caved in to pressure, as Rushdie has noted later, many brave booksellers insisted on displaying the novel and selling it, reinforcing freedom of expression, and keeping the idea of unfettered imagination alive.
That was then. It is different now.
In 2004, when Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti wrote a play, Behzti (Dishonour) which dealt with rape and abuse in a gurdwara (the Sikh place of worship), the Birmingham Repertory stopped performances because some members of the local Sikh community threatened violence. Later, “Behzti” could have readings in London, and Bhatti even wrote another play in 2010 – “Behud” (Beyond Belief) – which examined the state of censorship and artistic freedom in Britain.
And now? Madras Cafe can’t be shown, and much of the British media has ignored the story, except industry publications. That reflects the underlying paternalism of the media towards the politics within Britain’s minorities. Like female genital mutation, which was initially considered a quaint ritual among immigrants, and forced marriage, which was confused with arranged marriages among Britain’s Asians, intolerance by young hotheads is seen as a cultural characteristic of specific immigrant groups, and being good multicultural people, we should all accept that. Rights – of equality, of expression – are seen as the privileged majority’s heirloom. Since loud individuals within a minority don’t want it, why impose “our” values on them?
But those values are universal, not western. Madras Cafe may be a terrible film – who knows? – but that should be for the viewers and audiences to decide. The aggrieved Tamils have no obligation to see it; indeed, they have the right to picket peacefully outside theatres. They also have the right to tell their story and broaden our understanding of the Sri Lankan conflict, so that the British leaders who go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet in Sri Lanka in November know the kind of hosts whose hands they will shake.
The Sri Lankan story is complex, with neither the government nor the LTTE coming out looking good. The many victims of that conflict – Sinhala and Tamil alike – deserve better. Madras Cafe won’t tell that story – that was never its aim. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be shown.
Cinema chains need to rise to the challenge, and screen the film, with police protection, if necessary. Far more is at stake than a Bollywood blockbuster’s box office returns.