The newly released Tamil film Lens, which has been in the festival circuit for a while but managed to get a theatrical opening only now, takes on a difficult subject - that of cyber sex scandals. What's more, the film also has explicit scenes which are rare in mainstream Tamil films.
Lens explores new territory in more ways than one. At its heart, the film is a revenge thriller, a genre that is currently popular in Kollywood. However, its subject matter is not something most filmmakers would be willing to handle. It's decidedly an 'Adult' product and we live in a society where this equates 'vulgarity'. Never mind all the 'item' numbers in mainstream films that we watch with our children.
Besides, making a film like this means that it has no chances of getting the coveted 'U' certificate which will ensure 30% tax exemption from the state government. The tax break was supposedly introduced to encourage filmmakers to make less gory and more sensitive films.
However, all that this has accomplished is to push filmmakers towards picking "safe" subjects without really influencing the kind of cinema that they make. So a 'rom-com' like Remo which openly encourages stalking and gas-lighting continues to be made and released with a 'U' certificate, without the filmmakers or the certification board finding it problematic.
Anyone who has watched a reasonable number of Tamil films in the last five years will know that the criteria for handing out the 'U' certificate seems rather arbitrary. A vanilla love story like OK Kanmani which was about a consensual live-in relationship and had no explicit scenes was certified 'U/A', while Vijay's Theri which has graphic descriptions of gangrape (heavily 'inspired' by the 'Nirbhaya' case) and visuals of disturbing violence was released with a 'U'.
There's no doubt that Lens should have received an 'A' certificate as it has. However, the film has protagonists who speak about consent sensibly, while the concept can be seen nowhere in the average mainstream film that consistently glorifies the sexual harassment of women in the guise of "persistent love". It's bewildering why exactly the latter category should be rewarded with any kind of exemption while the former does not enjoy any benefits despite handling a subject sensitively.
The clout that a producer/actor/director has also obviously influences the certification. A gangster film like Kabali which has plenty of violence was released with a 'U' certificate, but it's doubtful if a much smaller film would have enjoyed the same leniency.
Given that Kollywood is increasingly seeing more and more debut filmmakers who are looking to explore new genres and subjects, the tax exemption that is decided upon by an arbitrarily handed out 'U' certificate limits the kind of cinema that they wish to make. It's unfair to the smaller players in the industry who are, actually, the people who are breaking out of the formulaic films that the audience is also growing tired of.
If more films like Lens need to be made, this 'carrot-and-stick' policy which is grounded in a strange morality needs to go.