Magazine

Freedom of perception

Film-maker Leslee Udwin, director of the documentary 'India's Daughter'.  

When I am conversing with you, there are actually six people involved in the dialogue: the real me, the person I want to be, and the person I want you to think I am; the real you, the person you want to be, and the person you want me to think you are. If interpersonal communications are so complicated, obviously mass media leave different intended and unintended impressions in people based on their individual and group backgrounds. As much as we have freedom of expression, we also have freedom of perception!

One year when I was on the Jury for National Awards for films, we gave Suhasini Mulay an award for An Indian Story, her documentary on the Bhagalpur blinding in Bihar. The film had no means of release since the Government thought it was bad propaganda. As jury, we found it was a truthful film of a gruesome incident. Although Films Division was acquiring national award-winning documentaries, it didn’t buy this one. Doordarshan also refused to telecast it. However, the film was grabbed by a foreign channel and distributed widely in Europe. The impression it created was disastrous. Most European audiences thought that, in India, burglars were commonly punished by the police by blinding without ever going to court! Some of us in the jury were embarrassed to receive comments from abroad that we helped “reveal the dirty truth about Indian law”. But allowing the release in India would have served two purposes: revealing an ugly truth to our own countrymen about an aberration in Bihar, and avoiding a distorted perception of the entire Indian legal system abroad.

As a documentary filmmaker, I have also faced similar situations. In Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi — my four-hour film on Indian History, distributed by Warner Brothers — I had staged a realistic early 19th century scene in which a woman commits sati by falling on her husband’s pyre. An educated American wrote to me asking why I did not prevent the sati while filming the event.  

Therefore, the issue relating to India’s Daughter has to be examined from different perspectives. First is the primary principle of freedom of expression by which a filmmaker should be allowed to portray and interpret any event. Second is an element of official strategy to ensure that the film does not affect national interest or damage the national image abroad. The treatment meted out to India’s Daughter is the same as that given to An Indian Story some decades ago.

At one level India’s Daughter is a truly sensitive film.  At another, as perceived by an international audience unfamiliar with the Indian reality, there is evidence that it will distort the specific as being the universal. The example is that of a German professor hesitating to admit an Indian student! This film would not have received much attention if there had been no “ban”. As a consequence, it has reached more numbers of a prejudiced audience than it would have otherwise, while not being available to the Indian audience who would have benefited by its sensitive treatment.

An event in early 1970 illustrated that banning in any form is wrong not merely ideologically but also strategically. Cho’s Tamil film Thuglak had been refused the censor certificate and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had been asked to intervene. Thuglak was a brilliant political satire that had been staged and the film version was directed by Cho himself. Manian (then Assistant Editor of Ananda Vikatan) knew that I had some contacts with the concerned ministry and sought my cooperation on behalf of our mutual friend Cho, who was not yet a national celebrity. Although I was an admirer of Indira Gandhi, whose government was against Thuglak, I decided to help Cho since I was committed to fight all hues of political censorship. 

Indira Gandhi had expressed her appreciation for Indian Film, which I co-authored with Erik Barnouw for Columbia University Press. She was an admirer of good cinema and respected filmmakers. She was Vice President of the Federation of Film Societies of India (of which Satyajit Ray was the President. I was one of the Secretaries), even after she became a minister in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s cabinet. A few weeks before the Tughlak controversy, I had interacted with senior officers of the I&B ministry as Secretary of the Jury for the International Film Festival of India at Delhi. I thought of a strategy. I rang up the Ministry’s Additional Secretary, Mr. Ghosh; Joint Secretary, Kabir Khan; and Dr. A.R. Baji, who later became Director of Press Information Bureau. My refrain with each was the same: “Cho is an excellent writer, dramatist and actor but has no credentials as a filmmaker. I have not seen the film, but reliable opinions are that Thuglak will be a flop in the box-office. The sure way to make it succeed is to sustain the controversy and delay the issue of censor certificate. It will be in the interests of the Government to forthwith approve the film, without letting the film gain all the publicity.”

Ghosh was furious. He thought the film was very offensive to the prime minister. While he was aware that I was against political censorship, since I had forcefully expressed that view in a seminar during the film festival, he expected my loyalty to Mrs. Gandhi to take precedence. Nevertheless, he was convinced by my argument that a ban would “be bad for the Government’s image and show that they were afraid of even a small dissent”. Kabir Khan (who had privileged access to the PMO, as a distant cousin of Mrs. Gandhi) agreed to take urgent steps.

The producer’s partner accompanied me to Delhi with a film print. I did not mention my “Dialogue with Delhi” to him. Things moved very fast at Delhi. A Revision Committee had been formed; the print was taken straight from the airport to the show. The same afternoon we were called for a meeting. The committee recommended a list of “cuts” and finding they were innocuous, I advised the producer’s agent to accept. The film was cleared.

Back in Chennai Madras, I briefed Manian on what I had done but hesitated to tell Cho about the arguments I had used. While I was glad that my strategy worked, I was sad that my baseless prediction had come true. For, if only the Censor Certificate had been given after long and publicised legal battle, the film may have been a box-office hit.

Back to India’s Daughter, the western audience’s attitude to the film is matched only by the hysteria of Indians who think the film has to be stopped. This could have been avoided by better norms at the stage of granting permissions for a foreigner to film in an Indian prison. When we film documentaries in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia, as well as in several western countries, we are subjected to many conditions and asked to show the entire filmed material (not just the edited version) to authorities. While I was filming in Thailand a few years ago, in spite of having all the required permissions of the Thai government and cooperation of the Indian Embassy, the restrictions while filming were incredibly obstructive.

If you find India’s Daughter disturbing from the point of view of your image, curse the officials who permitted filming in the prison; not the filmmaker who has made a well-intentioned, sensitive, and intelligent film.     

The writer is a documentary and television filmmaker with several national and international awards to his credit and is a recipient of Padmashri.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 3:19:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/freedom-of-perception/article7164481.ece

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