The year 1983 saw the release of a movie that continues to set the benchmark for satire in Hindi cinema: Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. A masterful comedy, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro used humour and a tale of two unlikely heroes to take potshots at corruption in the local government, the media, and the real-estate sector.
While Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro garnered a cult following over the years, it is another movie from 1983, the benign comedy Kissi Se Na Kehna, which has recently been plucked out of relative obscurity and thrust into the limelight for reasons few could have foreseen.
On June 27, the Delhi Police arrested fact-checker Mohammed Zubair of AltNews website. Days earlier on June 19, a solitary tweet by an anonymous Twitter handle tagged the Delhi Police seeking action against Zubair.
The complainant had taken issue with a tweet by Zubair in 2018 of a picture of a placard where “Honeymoon Hotel” written in Hindi had been tweaked with paint to read “Hanuman Hotel”. This, the complainant claimed, was a “direct insult of Hindus”.
The Delhi Police acted with admirable alacrity and arrested Zubair within days of receiving the anonymous tip-off. The police invoked Indian Penal Code Section 295A, under offences relating to religion, for “deliberate and malicious” acts to outrage or insult religion or religious beliefs.
Zubair was also slapped with Section 153A for “promoting enmity” between different groups on religious grounds. Soon after, multiple first information reports, or FIRs, were filed against Zubair in Uttar Pradesh based on allegations over his past tweets.
During the bail hearing before a Delhi court in the case pertaining to the 2018 tweet, Zubair’s lawyer Vrinda Grover noted that the image in question was in fact a screenshot of a scene from Kissi Se Na Kehna. The image as well as videos of the scene from the movie have been widely circulated on social media and are available on YouTube.
For nearly four decades, it had survived as an innocuous joke without anyone taking umbrage. Now, the courts of law were sitting in judgment to determine if it was tantamount to “blasphemy” or “hate speech”.
Notwithstanding the wide usage of these words in the public discourse, there exist no definitions of blasphemy or hate speech in India’s legal statutes. Typically, the aforementioned provisions of the Indian Penal Code are used to prosecute actions that could fall within the realm of blasphemy or hate speech, and over the years, the Supreme Court has cautiously sought to maintain the tricky balance of criminalising speech while preserving the sanctity of the fundamental right of freedom of expression.
Pertinently, the Supreme Court has noted that the objective of Section 295A is to “curb speech made with ‘malicious intent’ and not ‘offensive speech’”. In other words, speech – or movie scenes, for that matter – may well be offensive but in the absence of a deliberate or malicious intent to outrage religious feelings, criminal action cannot follow.
This is a crucial distinction and while granting bail to Zubair on July 15, the Delhi court noted the existence of malice as the sine qua non – or an essential component – to establish criminality. The Delhi court also noted that the movie Kissi Se Na Kehna had been cleared by the Central Board for Film Certification in 1983 without any complaint being raised.
As it happens, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was released just a month after Kissi Se Na Kehna in 1983. It isn’t clear whether the Central Board for Film Certification spent more time reviewing the former than it did the latter, particularly, the iconic Mahabharata scene in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.
The protagonists find themselves in the midst of a dramatisation of the epic Mahabharat and in a bizarre turn of events they appear on stage in the guise of the characters Duryodhan, Dussashan, Bheem and so on. The role of Draupadi, to top it all, is played by a corpse. The narrative of the great epic is forgotten as these interlopers strive to serve their own interests and mayhem ensues. The confusion culminates in hilarious fashion when Salim suddenly appears on stage and addresses Draupadi as Anarkali.
There is a staggering number of things one could choose to get offended by in this scene, if one were so inclined to. In a sequence lasting just a few minutes, there is the subversion of a great epic, heroes from the epic are parodied for comic effect and there is the surreal introduction of a Mughal emperor into a scene from the Mahabharata. Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro has received critical acclaim and its depiction of power and corruption continues to resonate with viewers.
A world where Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and its Mahabharata scene are silenced by claims of blasphemy and hate speech would be a poorer, dimmer place. On July 20, the Supreme Court granted interim bail to Zubair in the cases filed against him in Uttar Pradesh, but the final ruling on whether Zubair’s 2018 tweet of the Kissi Se Na Kehna scene amounted to blasphemy or hate speech is awaited.
When deliberating on the applicability of Section 153A, the Supreme Court has in the past observed that “the effect of the words must be judged from the standards of reasonable, strong-minded, firm and courageous men, and not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor of those who scent danger in every hostile point of view”.
One hopes that the courts continue to keep these principles in mind. There will certainly be contexts and circumstances where hate speech needs to be called out and punished. The law must, in those instances, take its course. But equally, there are moments when we would do well to heed film director Kundan Shah’s advice: jaane bhi do yaaro – let it go, friends.
Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.