Cutting Films Raw

Illustrati on: Dinesh Mayanglambam
Illustrati on: Dinesh Mayanglambam

‘We are living during a period of Silent Emergency, or what we can call an Undeclared Emergency’

— KP Sasi, activist and
documentary filmmaker

On the 6th of March this year, Leslee Udwin became a household name thanks to her controversial documentary, India’s Daughter. Providing a platform to the statements of accused Mukesh Singh of the Nirbhaya case, the film created an uproar that left the Central government embarrassed. Though the Centre managed to remove the controversial film from the internet, the great battle that ensued between the government and BBC, had left several officials fuming. Apparently, the incident had attempted to ‘spoil the image of the country’ and was ultimately an ‘embarrassment to the government’.

Subsequent to this furore, the government has now decided to take stringent measures when it comes to film and documentary making in India. According to reports, officials in three ministries — home, information & broadcasting and the ministry of external affairs — have been asked to review all the pre-approved proposals of films while keeping an eye out for new proposals for shooting films or documentaries, especially with respect to foreign filmmakers.

Additionally, the government has also decided to tighten guidelines around the provision of visa to foreign filmmakers. When TEHELKA contacted the officials at I&B ministry questioning the implementation of such preemptive measures upon filmmaking, officials stated that “the home ministry had initiated the new set of guidelines”.

Speaking to TEHELKA, documentary filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra criticises this new regime of taking permission fervently. “There is a well-defined law in India for filmmakers which requires them to take permission for location, dates and even makes them sign an undertaking, which mandates them to show the film to government officials once it’s been completed. Why then should they be subjected to ideological explanations if they are following all the rules?”

While India’s Daughter might not have contributed much to its original agenda of addressing sexual violence against women, it did trigger a much necessary debate around censorship in the Indian subconscious. Historically, the act of imposing curbs on documentary filmmakers could be traced back to Cinematograph Act, 1952. Under the legal structure of this act, many filmmakers were refused the right to exhibit and distribute their films. For instance, Rakesh Sharma’s documentary Final Solution based on the 2002 Gujarat riots was banned by CBFC for being provocative and under concerns that it may trigger communal riots. Similarly, Director Pankaj Butalia also had to seek legal recourse after he was denied certificate for his film The Textures of Loss (exploring the impact of the decades-long independence movement on ordinary Kashmiris). Thus, almost any film dealing with a ‘controversial subject’ and critiquing the present power structure has suffered the moral judgment from film certifying bodies such as the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

“I recently made a short film named Garass for Film & TV Institute of India, Pune, the previous year,” says National Award winning documentary director Sanju Surendran. “It was a diploma film for acting students and the audience it was aimed for was that of film festivals/film society screenings/academic circles etc. It’s almost a year, and we haven’t been cleared for the censor certificate yet. Because my film has a single dialogue in which the actor says, ‘this is the place where Dhabolkar (Narendra Dhabolkar) was killed’. Everybody — the police, the government — knows who killed him, still everybody is mum. Just the mention of Dhabolkar is needed for the censor board to reject the film. What sort of a democracy is this?”

The race to earn a censor certificate from the CBFC to ensure unrestricted public viewing is clearly a complicated task and most often ditched by small budget filmmakers. National award winning documentary filmmaker Shilpi Gulati explains, that “anything being publicly screened needs a censor certificate but given the vast number of filmmakers, only commercially released films get certificates when they release in film theaters. But for the small budget filmmakers it’s difficult to get involved in court cases spanning 10 years.”

While most small budget filmmakers chose not to approach the censor board to avoid such lengthy legal battles, veteran director Anand Patwardhan has often taken the exhausting route to fight against censorship. Repeatedly challenging the board and government by taking legal action whenever refused a certificate, almost all of Patwardhan’s documentaries were deemed unsuitable for public viewing by the CBFC (Bombay: Our City; Father, Son, and Holy War and War and Peace) until court judgments came to the rescue of his creative freedom.

Speaking to TEHELKA, Anand Patwardhan expressed his condemnation for the present government’s decision to ban India’s Daughter. Terming the government’s reaction to Udwin’s film as ‘extremely perverse and smacking of insecurity and misplaced nationalism’, Patwardhan also describes the grim picture behind the controversy centering India’s Daughter.

“The reality is that there must be people in the government whose own Manusmrti driven misogyny is reflected in the statements of the rapist and his macabre lawyers, and letting the public see this clearly must have been embarrassing. If those watching the film had identified with the amazing wisdom, humanity and sheer courage of the victim’s parents, they would have realised that the film is actually affirmative,” says Patwardhan.

Speaking about his struggles, the veteran auteur continues, “In my 40 years of filmmaking I have had to fight the same ‘misplaced nationalism’, sometimes accompanied by open religious bias. Filmmakers like me have time and again gone to court for redress. Luckily for us the Indian Constitution invariably came to our rescue and protected our freedom of expression and the public’s right to information.” If Anand Patwardhan is to be believed, and then the government can only strive to “tighten” guidelines by violating the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.

Though such preemptive restrictions put on documentary filmmakers could considerably affect the number of foreign filmmakers coming to India, according to Gulati, this would not necessarily affect the enthusiasm of the filmmakers.

Courting a controversy Accused Mukesh Singh in a still from the documentary India’s Daughter
Courting a controversy Accused Mukesh Singh in a still from the documentary India’s Daughter

“The Central government can keep imposing bans but given the times we live in, documentary filmmakers will continue to find a way out”, says Gulati.

While such an attitude might suggest vague optimism, earlier judgments ruling in favour of filmmakers suggest that the ground for censorship and films have not become absolutely arbitrary.

In a 2006 Bombay high court judgment, for instance, petitioners Gaurav Ashwin Jani, Anand Patwardhan and Simantini Dhuruv won the legal battle against censor requirement at National Film Awards (NFA). At that time, the court stated that, “It was discriminatory to insist that a small government appointed jury at the NFA could not view uncensored films. After all the jury’s job was to determine the best film in the country from a technical, aesthetic and social perspective. They should be allowed to view the film as originally intended by their creators, before the censors had their say.” Even though the Bombay high court judgment was negated by the Supreme Court, the judgment suggested the availability of a relatively open environment for documentary filmmakers in India. Particularly during a time when the internet has provided an open platform to anyone with an opinion.

But what remains a concern is India’s archaic attitude towards media. “People don’t understand the impact of images. Those who censor often assume a direct relationship between what people see and what they do. The government can’t pre-decide that the audiences are an ‘illiterate’ and ‘unruly’ mass of people who can be incited into passion upon watching cinema with ‘objectionable’ content.” says Shilpi Gulati.

In June 2011 during the CBFC and CII organised Samvaad, Leela Samson, then CBFC chairperson, had addressed the dubious issue of censorship in India suggesting a few reforms. Referring to the Cinematograph Act, 1952 as ‘a time warp’, Samson had proposed a few changes in favour of the debate around censorship.

Accordingly, Samson stated that the censor board should not be called thus as it was more of a ‘certification board’ and not ‘the censor board’.

Secondly, she also suggested that efforts must be made to move away from the concept of certification to ‘classification’ which can help in ‘identifying, recognising and catering to the needs of different target audiences.’

Echoing the same sentiment, former CBFC board member Ira Bhasker says, “The CBFC itself has been trying to achieve a pro-certification and anti-censorship stance with the Cinematograph (Certification) Rules of 1983 renaming the Central Board of Film Censors to Central Board of Film Certification.”

“While censorship is an obsolete idea, a structure of certification is rather needed in a society which has children,” emphasises Ira Bhaskar. “At least parents and guardians have the right to know what kind of content the film has to offer. Just for making an informed decision as consumers of entertainment.”

Though Bhaskar raises a pertinent point, the agenda around censorship and certification has changed manifold from where it once started. While the state must in effect, safeguard the interests of the public by upholding the constitutional right of its subjects, it is ironic to see how the same government is using its power to curb free-flowing dialogue which is a basic pillar of democracy.

At this juncture, it seems the only way to create a path through impending guidelines is to fight it out. As Ira Bhasker succinctly puts it, “While most documentary filmmakers don’t apply for certification because they want to avoid going through the tedious process to gain a certificate by taking up a fight against existing rules, the censor board and the government, it’s filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan who are ­actually making the effort to change the system by fighting it.”

With inputs from Ushri Basistha

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