The head of India’s film censor board has resigned citing “interference” over a film that the board says is a “promotional feature” about a controversial, real-life spiritual guru but which a government tribunal declared was an entertainment feature.
Leela Samson resigned on Thursday after the appeals tribunal reversed the censor board’s decision over “MSG: The Messenger of God”.
The film features Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a self-professed, real-life spiritual guru and leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, which describes itself as a “Social Welfare and Spiritual Organization”.
In the film, Ram Rahim Singh, 47, is seen riding around on a motorcycle in flashy costumes, beating up bad guys, singing and dancing like a Bollywood star.
After the censor board’s original decision, the filmmakers took the matter to an appeals tribunal which overruled the censor board.
Ms Samson told an Indian TV channel that the case was “clear coercion”. The tribunal, which usually takes a month to make a decision, had reportedly cleared ‘MSG’ in a day.
The government has denied any interference.
The controversy has delayed today’s release of MSG.
The decision to release the “entirely unsuitable” film had made a mockery of the censor board, said another panel member, Nandini Sardesai.
“If they had to give it a certificate and overrule us, why have a board in place?” Samson told Reuters.
But far from being unsuitable, say the film’s producers, “MSG” fights alcoholism and drug addiction, and extols the virtues of celibacy and a vegetarian diet.
The debate went viral on social media, with hashtags #MSGinCinemas and #WeLoveMSG trending on Twitter.
“All hail freedom of expression. MSG … is India’s Charlie Hebdo,” said one Twitter user.
The movie’s trailer, which has racked up more than 2 million views on YouTube, shows Ram Rahim Singh, complete with flowing beard and hairy outstretched arms, glaring at evildoers before scattering them with his fists. He is frequently mobbed by thousands of adoring followers.
Singh wrote and co-directed the film, besides singing and composing its music.
A sequel is in the works with profits earmarked to fund a hospital and HIV research centre, said Aditya Insaan, a spokesman for the film’s distributor, Hakikat Entertainment.
Even apart from the celluloid derring-do, Singh is a controversial figure.
In December, a court asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate claims that Singh forced 400 followers to undergo castrations at his ashram in Haryana, in order to experience God.
Singh has denied the allegations, but the CBI has filed a case.
Several groups representing the Sikh minority that makes up 2 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion have demanded a ban on the film, in which they say Singh distorted their scriptures and dressed up as a 17th-century Sikh guru.
“We are not against freedom of expression, but the organisation against Sikhism,” said S. Simranjit Singh Mann, the chief of one such group.
Insaan, the spokesman for the film’s distributor, has denied these contentions.