Makers of banned Malaysian film may face jail for hurting ‘religious feelings’

Under Section 298 of the Penal Code, they face a one-year prison sentence with fines if convicted.

The 104-minute film, which was banned in Malaysia last September, revolves around a young Malay Muslim girl who comes to terms with losing her terminally ill mother through researching what other religions say about life after death.

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Accused of promoting apostasy, the film was pulled from streamer Viu after the controversy caused by the Malaysian ban. While multiethnic and multicultural, Islam is Malaysia’s state religion with a legal code and enforcement agencies to preserve orthodoxy.

Khairi was released on a 6,000 ringgit (US$1,280) bail while Tan paid 6,500 ringgit (US$1,385), pending a trial date. Both were slapped with gag orders.

The duo have already faced death threats in a public backlash and probes by police and religious authorities since the release of the movie on Viu last year.

The film remains available on YouTube.

The attacks hurled at the filmmakers marked the lowest point of Malaysian cinema in 2023, in what is otherwise a vibrant year that saw a string of local flicks gaining recognition. Photo: AFP

Online, critics of the film rejoiced at the court action against the pair, saying they deserve to be punished for “insulting Islam” and should repent.

This includes scriptwriter Zabidi Mohamed, who has been a vocal opponent of the film from the start, applauding the move to haul Khairi and Tan to court, calling the film “blasphemous” and carrying “liberal thinking”.

“As a Muslim, I hold to the belief that the truth is only with Islam and hold to the religious belief that God is pleased with is only Islam,” he said in a Facebook post on Tuesday, adding that he was aware of the impending indictment a week earlier.

On the other side of a divided society, the charge was met with dismay with even some government backbenchers in parliament questioning the move.

“After more than 60 years of nation-building, are we losing more spaces and places for discussions, reflections, and creation?” asked Petaling Jaya MP Lee Chean Chung on X (formerly Twitter).

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Activist Mahi Ramakrishnan, meanwhile, called for solidarity with the filmmakers, actors and crew.

“Charging the director and producer takes a whack at their creative license, free speech and freedom of expression,” she said.

Last April, the filmmakers and cast were summoned by the police for questioning, as well as by the Kuala Lumpur Islamic religious authorities over the movie.

This came just one month after unknown assailants trashed and splashed paint and corrosive liquid on Khairi and actor Arjun Thanaraju’s cars, with messages calling for their death, saying the film “challenges Islam”.

The attacks hurled at the filmmakers marked the lowest point of Malaysian cinema in 2023, in what is otherwise a vibrant year that saw a string of local flicks gaining recognition and winning accolades at international film festivals.

“The world now knows Malaysia,” National Film Development Corporation’s chairman Kamil Othman said in December. “Malaysian cinema is making its wave so our duty and challenge is that it continues.”

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Despite the recognition by the film board, Malaysian authorities continue to keep Malaysian cinema on a short leash with Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil distancing the government from the straight-to-streaming film, alluding that the filmmakers had crossed the line in his response to it last March.

“I want to remind everyone that even if we want to be filmmakers, we still have laws that apply to any work we produce, so we have to respect those laws,” Fahmi said.

Fahmi, however, condemned the threats made against the filmmakers, crew and cast, and urged Malaysians not to take the law into their own hands following the incident.

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