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Meritorious Principle But Muddled Protest In MP

An enormously important and constitutionally guaranteed freedom that distinguishes democracies from more authoritarian forms of government is the citizens’ right to protest injustices without fearing persecution.

And among the more extreme forms of such civil protests is a cessation of work – to put down tools or roll down the shutters on a business. Quite simply: to go on a strike.

Unlike, say, holding a placard or burning an effigy, participating in a strike requires a far higher degree of commitment and sacrifice from the protester because, in this case, the first party to get affected is the dissenter him/herself as not working also means not generating revenues/wages.

It is important, therefore, to be absolutely sure of both the justifiability as also the effectiveness of this drastic step before walking down that path, and asking yourself a few pertinent questions can help in making that decision. First and foremost, is the cause just and the aggravation severe enough to justify this extreme measure? Second, will stopping work have a financial and/or moral impact on the party against whom one is protesting? Finally, do those against whom the protest is directed actually have the power to redress the situation?

Now, let us examine how the four-week long, just-concluded strike in theatres across Madhya Pradesh stacks up against these posers.

On the first count (the morality of the action and the gravity of the situation), there is no room for any ambiguity – the strike call was absolutely justified.

As often lamented on these pages, in addition to placing film tickets in the highest tax bracket, a glaring anomaly in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime is the leeway it gives local bodies (municipal corporations, village panchayats etc) to impose Entertainment Tax over and above the GST payable on ticket sales in cinemas. The film industry has been singled out for this additional levy, contradicting the promise of eradicating multiple taxes, which was supposed to be a key benefit of the GST roll-out.

It was this ill-conceived provision that led to the theatre strike in Madhya Pradesh when the Bhopal and Indore municipal corporations announced the imposition of Local Body Entertainment Tax (LBET) on ticket sales. This is totally unacceptable to us, the film industry, and we must oppose it with all legitimate means possible – including by going on strike – wherever and whenever it is sought to be levied.

However, where things start coming unstuck and our endorsement starts wavering stems from the subsequent turn of events. As luck would have it, on the very second day of the strike (October 6), the Election Commission of India (EC) announced the schedule for electing members to the legislative assemblies of five states, including Madhya Pradesh.

In line with electoral laws, the EC’s announcement automatically and immediately enforced the ‘Model Code of Conduct’ in the poll-going states, whereby the state government and its machinery is barred from taking any major policy decisions and essentially have to maintain status-quo till the election process is officially concluded.

Ergo, there was no way that the film community’s grievances could be redressed – even if the powers-that-be in MP were so inclined – till after December 11 at the very earliest, which is when votes will be counted in that state.

From what we hear, various levels of the state administration – including those at the very top – had expressed their willingness to accept the film industry’s demands. No doubt, one can justifiably be skeptical about the sincerity of politicians’ promises but this commitment can only be tested when a new state government is functional.

That being so, one wonders what objective was really being achieved by not calling off the strike once it was obvious very early in the day that the underlying issues – justified though they are – could not be resolved before mid-December.

As such, the continuation of the strike served only two purposes, neither of them desirable. One, it kept consumers in MP away from the latest releases and it is highly likely that some of them turned to illegal DVDs, downloads and streams of our content to get their fix. Second, it hurt the very community that it sought to protect i.e. the film industry, with everyone taking a hit – from exhibitors to producers to the daily wage earners like the parking attendants and watchmen at theatres or the staff manning the food stalls.

Let us do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. An analysis of recent box office data reveals that, on average, Madhya Pradesh constitutes around 5.5 per cent of the All-India box office for Hindi films. Extrapolating that trend to collections generated from other territories during the strike period, we estimate that anywhere between `16-20 crore were foregone in potential box office receipts from MP during these four weeks.

Bearing the brunt of this loss, obviously, were the films that released during this period – AndhaDhun, LoveYatri, Helicopter Eela, Jalebi, Tumbbad, Badhaai Ho and Namaste England, among others.

Using the same calculation as expounded above, Badhaai Ho’s current domestic tally, for example, would be over `97 crore instead of around `91 crore as it stands now, had the film not been denied a release in MP. Mind you, the foregoing estimates refer to collections only and do not include the lost food and beverage revenues that are usually a substantial contributor to every exhibitor’s bottom line.

While it is somewhat perplexing that it took so long, we are relieved that better sense has finally prevailed and that this important film territory in the Hindi heartland is back in business.

All the more so since some of the biggest films of the year are lined up for release during the festive season that is now underway, starting with the much-anticipated Thugs Of Hindostan barely a few days from now. With the festival of lights upon us, it is good to see the light back on cinema screens across MP.

- Nitin Tej Ahuja

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