Bombay Showcase

Censorship, that redundant pair of scissors

The State’s fear of the political documentary has been apparent in the spate of notices sent to Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and to Rohith Vemula’s colleagues for screening Nakul Singh Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai (above) . — Photo: Special arrangement  

Udta Punjab has once again brought into focus our ongoing battles against the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and the very idea of censorship itself. On Friday, the Bombay High Court too spoke sharply when it reminded the CBFC that its mandate as per the law is only to certify and not ‘censor’.

Whither censorship

It (censorship) is an anachronistic concept, which has no place in a modern-day democracy. We no longer live in times when people jumped out of their seats in fear while watching The Arrival of a Steam Engine . That cinematographic images coupled with sound have a disproportionate impact on ‘gullible masses’, who must be shepherded by a band of wise men, has been the core idea behind our censorship laws and practices. But in this age of 24x7 television, online streaming, GIFs and smartphone videos, it defies any logic to hold on to the same notions of censorship that existed 70-80 years ago. It also seems bizarre for the State to play nanny to shield its citizens, who in its view, are otherwise mature enough to take a wide range of key decisions including who to vote for, how to earn a living and who to marry — but, apparently, all their wisdom and analytical abilities abruptly vanish the moment they step into a cinema hall, turning them into bumbling idiots.

Censorship and the Documentary

For documentary film-makers, the situation is even more absurd even though their films do not ever get a theatrical release or mainstream DVD distribution. Yet, they are subjected to an even more stringent version of censorship. If anything, the closest parallel would be current affairs programming on news channels — TV ‘specials’ on beef-lynchings, Haryana gang rapes or farmer suicides are our regular nightly viewing but the same material edited into a ‘documentary’ would be thwarted by the Nihalanis of the CBFC. Among other things, this is a mockery of the fundamental right to Equality before Law.

Whether it is my film Final Solution on the 2002 Gujarat carnage, Shubhradeep Chakravarty’s Een Dinon Muzaffarnagar or Anand Patwardhan’s work, the political documentary bears the brunt of partisan censorship as most ruling parties pack the CBFC panels with their supporters, who readily interfere, to showcase their loyalty to their political masters. Though the appellate courts have consistently ‘cleared’ such films, the entire journey through the Examining Committee, the Revising Committee, the FCAT (Tribunal), the High Court and the Supreme Court usually takes a couple of years, which suits the powers-that-be, as the film essentially remains buried. By the time it is cleared, the film either loses topicality or falls by the wayside as the film-makers have by then expended most of their time, energy and resources in battling the censors. No wonder most of them have stopped approaching the CBFC for a certificate, preferring instead to explore ‘alternative’ screening spaces.

Rising intolerance

In the two years since the Modi-led BJP came into power, there’s been a special focus on curbing such spaces to thwart any counter-narratives and muzzle oppositional voices. Whether it is the University of Hyderabad (HCU) or Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the State’s fear of the political documentary has been apparent in the spate of notices sent to Kanhaiya, Umar, Anirban and to Rohith Vemula’s colleagues for screening Nakul Singh Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai . If politics cannot be discussed and debated in campuses among serious students of political science and related streams, then where else?

Unsurprisingly, the State and its ‘Censor Board’ focus only on voices disagreeable to them — I haven’t yet heard of notices or punitive action against the propaganda films produced and circulated by cadres of the ruling party or its fraternal organisations. In 2002, I bought DVDs of Ramsevak Amar Rahein , a provocative video, showing among other things, the burnt S-6 coach and charred bodies. The Ahmedabad VHP office, readily issued receipts in my name and that of Anupam Kher (who was then Chairman, CBFC), even though it is illegal to sell or rent any film sans a censor certificate. When brought to its attention, even the UPA government was reluctant to act, which was in line with its ‘soft Hindutva’ policy of never stirring this hornet’s nest.

Today, the rightwing and its supporters brazenly circulate propaganda films and videos on Love Jihad, Ghar Wapasi (re-conversion of minorities) or Kashmiri Pandits (e.g. Kher’s self-aggrandising propaganda, first aired on Times Now) – quite obviously, the self-confessed Modi-chamcha Pahlaj Nihalani or the Ministry is unlikely to ever stop or question them.

Nihalani himself has turned the CBFC into a political tool for the BJP, rapidly obliging its ally Dera Sacha Sauda’s Messenger of God and not clearing even a relatively harmless film like Kamal Swaroop’s Dance for Democracy/Battle of Banaras (a documentary on the 2014 poll campaign in PM Modi’s constituency). His partisan actions in the context of Udta Punjab too seem politically motivated, to minimise the damage to the beleaguered Akali-BJP combine’s prospects in the upcoming Assembly elections.

Censorship and civil society

While we readily criticise the State, the elephant in the room is the demand for more regulation and intervention by activists and assorted groups. This is what provides the State the necessary justification for intervention — a classic case of well-intentioned but ill-considered campaigns. While opposing the feminists demanding a ban on Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter , I’d pointed out that if their argument was accepted and the film was banned on the grounds of the matter being sub-judice, it’d set in stone a terrible principle. I’d have been able to release Final Solution only 20-30 years after the carnage, only after the appeals process had been totally exhausted in cases like the Naroda-Patiya and Gulbarg massacres, key sequences from my film. I have repeatedly argued that instead of rushing to the State with demands to ban or mutilate a film, those ‘offended’ are best advised to influence public discourse through protests, social media campaigns and appeals to audiences to not patronise ‘offensive’ films.

The future portents

Whether this government will accept and implement all or most of the Shyam Benegal committee recommendations will only be revealed in fine print whenever a formal announcement is made. The initial reports suggest that some overriding provisions of the Cinematograph Act, especially Section 5B, will be left untouched. These (provisions) empower the CBFC to ban, maim or mutilate any film on grounds like ‘affecting relations with friendly countries (used by CBFC’s Examining Committee to initially deny a certificate to Michael Moore’s Farhenheit 911 at a time when it was running to packed houses in that ‘friendly country’ USA), jeopardising State security, breach of peace and public disorder etc., the oft-abused draconian provisions of the Cinematograph Act, specifically cited even in the order denying a certificate to Final Solution .

Even with a supposedly relatively liberal censorship regime, it is quite unlikely that we can produce a contemporary Aandhi (thwarted by the Congress as they felt the Suchitra Sen character was based on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi). Just think about the male version of the same film: about Krishna, the politician who abandons Rukmini, his wife and becomes the Prime Minister or Chief Minister! Or imagine a Kissa Kursi Ka , featuring a bloodthirsty leader engineering riots to capture power. If the CBFC doesn’t get you, the extralegal censors (read party goons) would, assaulting the film’s team, blackening faces, violently disrupting screenings, smashing cinema theatres and questioning the nationalism of the actors and crew involved.

The State’s desire to control cinema is unlikely to fade away. As film-makers, we need to think of the multiple ways in which to combat it, including guerrilla distribution and other actions that render censorship redundant. But, it is you, dear audience, that has to be at the heart of an anti-censorship campaign, for without you, no film-maker can fight this battle. So be visible and vocal in the largest possible numbers or forever make your peace with puerile films and infantile stories.

Rakesh Sharma is an independent documentary film-maker. He tweets at @rakeshfilm

(The article has been edited for a factual error)

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 6:05:52 PM |

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