India’s top court halts release of film ‘offensive’ to Muslim women and Islam

Poster for the film Hamare Baarah (Newtech Media Entertainment)
Poster for the film Hamare Baarah (Newtech Media Entertainment)

The Supreme Court of India has stayed the release of the Bollywood film Hamare Baarah saying the teaser alone contains enough content that is offensive to married Muslim women and their religion.

The top court issued the stay order on Thursday after hearing a challenge to a Bombay High Court decision permitting the film to be released on 15 June.

The counsel for the filmmakers claimed that they had cut all objectionable scenes from the teaser in keeping with the high court’s order. “We saw the teaser today morning and all scenes are there,” the top court replied.

When the counsel said the stay order would result in losses for the filmmakers, the court said, “If teaser is so offensive, then what about the whole movie? Prima facie it seems you have failed since you yourself deleted the scenes from the teaser”.

Hamare Baarah tells the story of Manzoor Ali Khan Sanjari, who, despite losing his first wife during childbirth, continues to have more children with his second wife, now pregnant with her sixth. When doctors warn that the pregnancy risks her life, Khan refuses an abortion,” reads the film’s synopsis on Indian ticketing platform BookMyShow.

“His daughter Alfiya, determined to save her stepmother, takes her father to court to demand an abortion. The film explores whether Alfiya can convince her father and the court and questions the entrenched patriarchy in their society.”

The synopsis echoes the sectarian rhetoric that prime minister Narendra Modi, his Bharatiya Janata Party and the wider Hindu nationalist ecosystem is accused of pushing – that Muslims have far more children than Hindus and, therefore, grab a bigger share of the country’s resources and welfare benefits.

In an election campaign speech in April, Modi falsely claimed that “Muslims had the first right to the wealth of the nation” under the previous government led by the Congress party.

“This means they will distribute this wealth to those who have more children, to infiltrators,” he said, warning the mostly Hindu crowd against voting for the opposition party. “Should your hardearned money be given to infiltrators?”

India’s Muslim population grew from 35.4 million in 1951 to 172 million in 2011 while the Hindu population rose from 303 million to 966 million, according to the latest census figures published in 2011.

The National Family Health Survey of 2019-21 shows that the fertility rate of Muslims has fallen more than that of Hindus. The fertility rate, the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime, dropped from 4.41 to 2.36 for Muslims between 1992 and 2021 and from 3.3 to 1.9 for Hindus.

The petition filed against Hamare Baarah in the Bombay High Court argued that the film, originally scheduled for release on 7 June, was derogatory to married Muslim women and their faith generally, and that the trailer misquoted a verse from the Quran.

It said the film’s release would violate Article 19(2) of the constitution, which allows for imposing “reasonable restrictions” in the “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India”, as well as Article 25, which guarantees every citizen the “freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion”.

The plea asked the High Court to stop the film’s release and direct the country’s film certification body to revoke its certification.

The Central Board of Film Certification, in turn, told the court it certified the film as per procedure and after some objectionable scenes were deleted.

The court initially stayed the release of the film till 14 June and directed the board to form a review committee to watch the film and provide feedback. The board asked for time to file a detailed response, which led the high court to permit the release.

The petitioner then moved the supreme court arguing that the high court had given an “unreasoned order”. They also contested the high court’s decision asking the film board to constitute a review committee on the ground that “it is an interested party”.

The Supreme Court asked the High Court to decide on the merits of the case and granted the petitioner the freedom to object to the constitution of the review committee.

The film has already been banned in Karnataka as the state’s government feared “possibilities of communal riots”.