A right to ban
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When Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa sharply commented that Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, a Supreme Court lawyer to boot, had some homework to do before commenting on the state government's powers to stop the exhibition of films that are duly certified by the Censor Board of Film Certification, she was on the mark. Most of them have, and Tamil Nadu has exercised it quite recently, and the decision was upheld by the Supreme Court a day after the state banned the screening of Vishwaroopam.
Even as Tamil Nadu government's decision to suspend the screening of Vishwaroopam is being questioned, it is on a firm ground as far as the legal validity is concerned as the government draws this power from the Tamil Nadu Cinemas (Regulation) Act of 1955.
It must, however, be noted that it is as yet unclear whether the ban was put in place by invoking the provisions of the Act, or through Section 144 of the CrPC alone. According to Section 7 of the Act, the state government or the district collector within his jurisdiction may suspend the exhibition of the film, if its public exhibition is "likely to cause a breach of peace".
The Act was used in November, 2011 to prohibit the screening of a film, Dam 999. The film, which showed the collapse of a dam and its aftermath, evoked protests in the state, coming as it did at a time when Tamil Nadu and Kerala were entangled in a furious contention over the safety of the 118-years-old Mullaiperiyar dam.
Filmmaker Sohan Roy filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging this, but it was dismissed after the court held that it cannot ignore the apprehensions expressed by the state.
Tamil Nadu is not the only state that has armed itself with such powers to regulate the exhibition of films. In south India itself, Section 8 of the Andhra Pradesh Cinemas (Regulation) Act, 1955; Section 9 of the Kerala Cinemas (Regulation) Act, 1958; and Section 15 of the Karnataka Cinemas (Regulation) Act, 1964, grant the power to the state governments to ban exhibition of a film if it is feared to cause a breach of public peace. The provisions of these Acts are usually invoked in cases of violations, including collection of rates, exceeding permitted seating capacity, quality of service, and not meeting the basic safety measures that are mandatory to obtain the licence.