In 2013, the Gujarat government denied an entertainment tax exemption to Meghdhanushya, KR Devmani’s Gujarati film on the gay community featuring Manvendra Singh Gohil, the openly gay prince of Rajpipla. The response to a Right to Information petition filed by has now confirmed that Meghdhanushya was the first and only film to be refused a tax exemption certificate on the grounds of its subject matter in the 16 years since Gujarat's entertainment tax policy came into effect.

The film, which was never released, deals with the struggles of a young man confronting his sexual identity and the resulting turmoil in his family. It is intercut with observations by Gohil. Among the reasons cited by the state’s entertainment tax commissioner for refusing the exemption in July 2013 included a potential law and order problem, that the film was not suitable for viewing by a decent family and that it promoted homosexuality.

The commissioner had said that the subject of homosexuality was controversial in Gujarat, in the country and “the world over”. He concluded that films like Meghdhanushya would send a negative signal to society and an exemption would mean that the state government endorsed homosexuality.

Subject matter

According to a Gujarat government resolution, a film does not deserve tax benefits if it promotes evil customs such as sati or dowry, or blind faith, or is against national unity. Even if it fails to meet these criteria, the film can still be screened in theatres.

The other exemption criteria include a minimum running time of 100 minutes, the film has to be in colour, and its makers have to apply for a tax exemption certificate within 90 days of receiving censor board clearance.

In response to the RTI application, Gujarat’s entertainment tax authorities said that only five films had been denied tax exemption since 1999, with 594 films making the cut. The policy was applicable to all Gujarati colour films made after April 1997. While Meghdhanushya was refused exemption solely for its controversial content, the other four refusals were on technical grounds.

Films Jeevtar and Ma Ambe both applied for tax exemption after the 90-day period, while Jay Jalaram had a civil court case pending. Navratrinu Mahima “was not a feature” film, said NB Upadhyay, the entertainment tax commissioner, but a series of video clips of garba performances.

“We are very positive [towards Gujarati cinema],” said Upadhyaya. “Only five films have been rejected in all these years.”

Rude shock

Consensual same-sex acts are considered criminal under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The Supreme Court had in 2013, the same year in which Meghdhanushya was slated to be released, reversed a 2009 Delhi high court judgement decriminalising consensual same-sex acts between adults.

Meghdhanushya was 30-year-old Devmani's first feature-length production. The shooting was completed in 2012. He had fixed the release date for 2013 and he even organised a special screening. Devmani was surprised when the film was denied a tax exemption certificate. “Even the censor board cleared the film after asking for just one word to be muted,” said Devmani.

Devmani challenged the commissioner’s 2013 order. In February 2014, a Gujarat High Court order went in his favour. But this was challenged by the Gujarat government in the Supreme Court. While hearing the petition in September this year, a Supreme Court bench said that there are "people in whose views [homosexuality] may be akin to [a] social evil.”

While ruling that Meghdhanushya should be granted a tax exemption, the Gujarat High Court bench had in February 2014 spoken at length on the importance of free speech and diverse opinions. “The issue [homosexuality] perhaps embarrasses some members of society and is talked about in hushed whispers,” the judgement read. “That, however, would not mean that it falls in the categories [that do not merit exemption].” Overruling the entertainment tax commissioner, the court had said “his role was not that of the Censor Board” and that there was no indication as to how the film could cause social friction.

“I am surprised that the Gujarat government is pursuing this matter in the Supreme Court, because this will mean additional financial cost for them,” said Devmani.