In January, the defence minister and the top brass of the Indian Air Force solemnly trooped into a theatre to watch a screening of the Aamir Khan film Rang De Basanti. Censor Board Chief Sharmila Tagore had invited them to clear the film since the story revolved around corrupt politicians and crashing MiGs -- a sore topic for the Indian Air Force.
The airmen, wisely, refused to demand any cuts. Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, even more wisely, refused to offer any comments at all. I had hoped that this silliness was an anomaly, just a case of Sharmila Tagore and her colleagues going overboard in being careful.
Alas, it was not an isolated instance but the thin end of the wedge. It now appears that the Government of India wants the approval of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India before the film Da Vinci Code is screened.
I hold no brief for Dan Brown's book. I read Holy Blood, Holy Grail almost a decade ago. I found even that work sensationalistic. Asking me to believe that a group of people could keep a secret for 20 centuries runs against human nature.
My other grouse against Holy Blood, Holy Grail was that it was, in places, just rank bad history. The authors' evaluation of the Austro-Hungarian role in the origins of World War I, for instance, was truly snigger-worthy. And I was simply unconvinced by the manner in which the authors of the book would raise a speculation in one chapter, then another theory three chapters later by which time the first speculation had been elevated to a hard fact.
Unconvincing dishwater though Holy Blood, Holy Grail was, the book was marginally better than Dan Brown's fictional work. Brown used much the same questionable assumptions -- and then proceeded to robe them in wooden, cliche-ridden prose.
But is any of that reason enough to ban the film based on the book? The book has been in the market for several years. If the Catholic Bishops Conference of India had no problem with the book they must be asked why they are out on the streets over the film.
I suppose they could argue that even an illiterate person could be exposed to the film while he, or she, would never pick up the book. This is not much of an explanation. This is a Hollywood film, and anyone in India who can understand English well enough to grasp an American accent is also almost certainly literate.
And, of course, this reckons without the pirates. I remember seeing The Fellowship of the Ring -- the first part of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy -- on sale in Delhi's Palika Bazaar within a fortnight of its release in theatres.
Getting the Censor Board to ban Da Vinci Code will, I am sure, make the DVD pirates a very happy bunch of men but it won't stop Indians from watching the film. This attempted censorship is not only impossible to implement but also bad in principle.
What happens if someone makes a film about corrupt industrialists? Will the Censor Board refuse to pass it unless ASSOCHAM and FICCI wave the green flag? Must the Bar Association approve any film where a lawyer is shown playing a villainous role? And will we see the day when the Central Hall of Parliament is converted into a theatre so that the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha may pass their verdict on a movie depicting a crooked politician?
Frankly, I believe the Catholic Bishops Conference of India has not yet accepted the lessons of the Second Vatican Council. One of the results of that historic conclave was that the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum -- the 'List of Prohibited Books' -- was abolished by Pope Paul VI.
Yet here in India the Catholic hierarchy would love to revive the Index, and possibly add to it by putting films in the list. This is a case of the Vatican being more liberal than its priests in India. The Vatican simply asked Catholics to boycott the Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India wants an outright ban. It is a significant difference.
The Vatican is asking for a voluntary act from individuals. The Catholic Bishops Conference of India is asking for open intervention by the State machinery. Which leads to the interesting conclusion that the Vatican has greater trust in the Catholic laity than the local priests do!
The Vatican has the right idea. Every film is nothing more than a commercial project. Spread the word and boycott it so that it flops, thus ensuring that nobody else will make anything on the same lines.
But the only thing more mindboggling than the convoluted logic of Dan Brown's book is the Catholic Bishops Conference of India asking for a ban on a film that can be legally shown in Rome.
It is exactly 40 years since Pope Paul VI banned the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1966. Do you want to celebrate the anniversary by creating a new list?