Killed in the Mind

Backed by the State, a vicious culture of oppressive control, pre-censorship, bans and violent assaults stalks creative filmmakers in India
Aakshi Magazine Delhi

“Film is the only medium that is pre-censored,” says documentary filmmaker Rahul Roy. It is a disconcerting thought. To think that what we watch is always already a censored version of what had been made, unlike in the case of a book or a work of art which is circulated, watched or read before it can invite objection, if any.  

Documentary filmmakers today try to escape this pre-censorship by choosing to step out of the process of applying for a censor certificate whenever they can afford to. With the coming of video technology, this possibility has increased since, unlike earlier times, films no longer need a censor certificate when leaving the film lab. Significantly, what this means is that the State can no longer control the content at the level of what is shot and put together, and therefore it needs to devise newer ways of clamping down on dissemination. The increasing controls can be linked to this anxiety over dissemination being out of control. That which cannot be done through one method, is sought to be done through other means.

One of these “more insidious ways” of doing this, according to documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan, is the increasing refusal by venues to screen documentary films that do not have a censor certificate. The rules vary from one part of the country to another, for instance, they are stricter in Maharashtra than Delhi. 

Commercial Bollywood cinema’s relationship to the censor certificate is somewhat different and decided by the need for protection and to ensure a theatrical release. After all, without it, no theatre would touch a film. And it ensures protection from potential trouble-makers too as long as they are not the “big boys”, feels documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak. When these big boys get involved, nothing can stop them. This has been apparent for years, the most horrifying example being the protests led by the Shiv Sena in 1996 against Deepa Mehta’s Fire for being “un-Indian” and “corrupting Indian women”. 

‘Teli ka tel’ had to be changed to ‘dilli ka tel’ in a song from the film Kaminey, after the RashtriyaTeli Rathore Chetna Mahasangh alleged that the words were derogatory to the Teli community

In recent years, Aamir Khan’s Fanaa was banned in Gujarat when the Modi government targetted him because of his support to the Narmada BachaoAndolan. My Name is Khan also became a target of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, but was finally released under police protection because Shah Rukh Khan is reportedly chummy with the “first family” in Delhi and it backed him. 

The complicity of the State in giving in to the demands of different groups is what disturbs filmmakers the most. “No protection is afforded by the State to a person who wants to say something and might have the potential to hurt someone. The action is always against the filmmaker, the artist, the writer,” says Sanjay Kak. This year, a seminar on Kashmir at Symbiosis, Pune was cancelled after the ABVP protested against the inclusion of Kak’sJashn-e-Azadi. Roy too feels that the “real worrying part is the State kneeling down in front of these protests. The State is responsible for law and order but that is not happening, which encourages impunity.”  Adds Kak: “And whose right is the State protecting? Should it not protect the public’s right to watch?”

In recent years, the Central Board of Film Certification has become more flexible when it comes to allowing sexual content and violence in “Bombay cinema”. At first glance, this might seem like an opening-up scenario. But discerning observers have a different story to tell. 

Censorship has always been about political control. Control over women’s bodies and religious sentiment, feels Dewan, are the themes that invite controlEven when films pass the censor test, control is exercised by deletion of dialogues and words. Last year, in Love, Sex  aur Dhokha, the word ‘Dalit’ was removed from one of the three stories that made up the film, changing its meaning from caste to class oppression. Which is why many film-makers feel the necessity of doing away with the very idea of censorship. In an interview some years ago, AnuragKashyap had said, “There should not be film censorship at all.” And recently, when Sudhir Mishra’s Yeh Saali Zindagi got into trouble with the board, he commented in a discussion, “The censors should just quit!” 

Other ways of exercising control include granting an “Adult” certificate to films that upset or challenge dominant moral and social codes. Thus Dev D or Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, which might challenge patriarchy, are given an “Adult” certificate to control the viewership. Often, one also finds films that seem to be nuanced in their politics and understanding of the world but, then, as if to balance out, become tame towards the end. Ab Tak  Chhapan, about an “encounter cop” in Mumbai, is an example that Kak cites. 

‘In Love, Sex aur Dhokha, the word ‘Dalit’ was removed from one of the three stories that made up the film

In 2000, Deepa Mehta’s Water, a film on the plight of widows in Varanasi, was not allowed to be shot in India after an organised, violent and vicious campaign led by the VHP, RSS and other Hindu Rightwing organisations. Its sets were ransacked even while the government played footsy. Argues Dewan: “The fact that the film was not made was horrible enough, but what was even worse was the precedence it set.” In the 12 years that have followed, the idea of “hurt sentiment” on which this campaign was led, has quickly become a too often heard argument in the public domain. What was thought to be a preserve only of the reactionary Rightwing is now being used even by representatives of marginalised groups
as a model. 

In 2007, a line from a song in AajaNachle created a controversy when it was banned in UP because it was seen as being offensive to Dalit sentiment: “Bazaar me machi hai mara maar, kahe mochi bhi khud ko sonar.  (There is chaos all around, even the shoe-maker behaves as if he is the goldsmith).” Portraying a sentiment lamenting caste mobility, it was perhaps an indication of the growth in Dalit assertion in India that it was picked up and made into an issue. This kind of censorship, after all, as Kak says, is about a “display of power. An assertion that one can get something banned or removed.” The line was finally changed.

Two years later, “telika tel” had to be changed to “dillika tel” in a song from the film Kaminey, after the Rashtriya Teli Rathore Chetna Maha sangh and SP RajyaSabha member Ram NarayanSahu alleged that the words were derogatory to the Teli community. The same year, the word “barber” was dropped from the title of the film Billu Barber, because the Salon and Beauty Parlours’ Association felt it was derogatory. 

“These developments are reflective of deep-rooted conflicts that are already present. They need situations in which they can be articulated, which they find in films and books,” says Roy. Kak feels that the earlier consensus on things seems to be breaking and this is a sign of a fracture on the side of silence. This is an interesting idea because there can never be absolute freedom of expression, it can be only, as Kak put it a, “continuous struggle”. 

The word ‘Barber’ was dropped from the title of the film Billu Barber, because the Salon and Beauty Parlours’ Association felt it was derogatory

Curiously, though disturbed by the culture of bans and the State’s complicity in it, Kak still says that “there are more people today who object to being censored”. “I could not have taken the decision to not have a censor certificate for a film on Kashmir 10 years ago,” he said, referring to Jashn-e-Azadi, which invited trouble from many quarters, but was equally well received in terms of people wanting to watch and show the film at different places all over the country. These spaces have not been tamed yet. Dewan is more pessimistic and feels that “one doesn’t know anymore what will offend whom”. 

And just as control might be sought to be exercised in insidious ways, there are also examples of subversion in creative ways. After two of his films — Paanch and Black Friday — were banned one after the other, Kashyap made the deliberately ambiguous and self-indulgent No Smoking. Because of its ingenious title, many critics were fooled into believing that the film had an anti-smoking message. The narrative, though, was the exact opposite, using smoking as a metaphor for creative freedom, critiquing and attacking guardians of thought and control. Hence, Kashyap’s most anti-establishment film became his first film to be granted a release without any hitch.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2012