An ongoing case before the Kerala High Court on restricting negative reviews of films in the first few days of their release constitutes an interesting as well as challenging free speech issue. The court has taken on the task of distinguishing genuine film criticism from attempts to destroy a movie’s prospects of success through malicious comments, or by threatening to post negative reviews with a view to extorting money. It appears that the court is aware of the implications of any move to restrict or curb disparaging reviews for free speech and freedom of expression, but it remains to be seen how it will be able to balance the commercial interests of film-makers and the freedom of reviewers. Film director Mubeen Rauf had approached the court for a direction to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the State Information Technology Department, among others, to ensure that social media influencers and film reviewing vloggers do not publish any reviews of his film Aromalinte Adyathe Pranayam in social media for at least seven days from the date of its release. Remarks and observations made so far in interlocutory orders suggest that the court’s focus is mainly on those who either post anonymously or vloggers with unknown credentials who trash films within hours of their release with apparently malicious intent, and do not threaten the freedom of film reviewers with acknowledged expertise and experience.
In an order on October 25, Justice Devan Ramachandran directed that “a close watch on the online platforms shall be maintained, to ensure that anonymous mala fide content is not allowed to circulate; and necessary action under the provisions of the “IT Act” [Information Technology Act] shall be taken and implemented scrupulously without delay”. Interestingly, the order also notes that apparently due to the very pendency of these proceedings, the film made by the petitioner had a good run at the box office as it was spared “review bombing”, the term that has gained currency for the phenomenon of deliberate spoiling of a film’s prospects. The Union government is expected to file its response soon, but a word of caution will be in order. The court’s observation in its latest order that the freedom of those involved in making a film should not be sacrificed at the altar of the “unbridled freedom of expression” of those acting under the impression that they are not governed by any parameters or regulations should not lead to a verdict either curbing the freedom to critically analyse a film or an attempt to restrict the art of criticism. After all, making and reviewing a film are both two aspects of the same right to free speech.