The Delhi High Court has finally cleared the censorship hurdles for The Textures of Loss, Pankaj Butalia’s 2012 documentary on Kashmir. The film is part of Butalia’s trilogy on conflict-torn regions in India — Manipur (Manipur Song, 2007), Kashmir and Assam (A Landscape of Neglect, 2015). He had approached the court after the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and the Film Certificate Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) asked for some major deletions from the 61-minute film.
Giving a go-ahead to the filmmaker to screen the documentary with a ‘U’ certificate, and without the deletions or disclaimers that the censors had demanded, the high court observed, “Unanimity of thought and views is not the test to be employed by censoring (sic) authorities in such situations…
The response cannot be to ban, mutilate or destroy the work of another, with whom one stridently disagrees.”
Edited Excerpts from an interview
What do you think will be the impact of the recent Delhi High Court verdict in favour of your film The Textures of Loss on the ongoing debate over censorship and freedom of expression?
I was lucky that two or three of the judges were willing to look at issues. But, by and large, most judges have strong opinions and don’t look at the law. The authorities are expected to act according to the law. Yet one sees the censor board constantly try to overreach its mandate and go beyond the powers it has been given to impose restrictions on filmmakers, especially political filmmakers. They have strange standards of morality. They are very ‘liberal’ when it comes to obscenity and violence. There is hardly an Indian film — from Mumbai, Hyderabad or Chennai — that does not show extreme violence. But the censors are okay with it.
You say the CBFC and FCAT act and take decisions “arbitrarily” and with “arrogance”, violating the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
When FCAT chairperson Lalit Bhasin (at that time I didn’t know he was a well-known lawyer) asked me what the “issue” was, I told him the issue is that the CBFC goes beyond what it is empowered to do. He started shouting, “Don’t teach us law.” Now, the Delhi High Court has told him he didn’t know the law. He used to watch the films alone, and all his notifications had this constant refrain, “since a quorum was not possible…” However, there is no set quorum for FCAT. What this means is that when you submit your film to the censors, just one person watches it at the CBFC and then another at FCAT, both of whom do not apply their mind to the film and take arbitrary decisions. The only benchmark they know is whether the film will please the regime in power. After all, who wants to risk his job?
Why did they have a problem with your film The Textures of Loss?
This was one film with which the censors should have had no issues at all. Far more critical films have been made on Manipur and Kashmir. My film, on the other hand, is only about people who have lost their loved ones. All that I have done is give them space to say what they have to say. And look at how the censors saw the film. Often they got the meaning wrong and therefore asked for deletions.
Interestingly, documentaries often slip through the cracks of the censorship regime even though that’s exactly what they want to stop. This happens because documentary filmmaking is too small-scale to figure on the censors’ radar despite their hostility towards many of the documentaries that somehow manage to catch their eye. Documentaries are screened in schools, colleges and so on, and circulated through DVDs.
In fact, you don’t need a censor certificate to hold private screenings or to make it available online, which is how many documentary filmmakers reach out to their audience. It can also be shown on television. For instance, I didn’t take my film on Manipur to the censors, yet it was telecast on NDTV 24X7 and NDTV Profit. I can only reach 300-400 people in one theatre show. But outside that space, which the censors focus on, the films are reaching millions of viewers.
The CBFC often tries to justify censorship by saying something or the other in a film could lead to communal violence. That is utter nonsense. Nearly 30 years ago, they said Deepa Dhanraj’s 1986 documentary Kya Hua Is Sheher Ko? (What happened to this city?), which captures with the immediacy of a breaking news story the 1984 communal riot in Hyderabad, could lead to communal violence. There have been numerous instances of communal violence in various parts of the country since then, but not a single such incident was triggered by the film, which was screened hundreds of times during this period.
They said the same thing when Rakesh Sharma made Final Solution (2004) about the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and the role of Narendra Modi, the then chief minister. It has been screened many times in the past 11 years but that did not stop Modi from becoming prime minister. So the authorities’ paranoia regarding documentaries is silly.
In fact, the law itself (The Cinematograph Act, 1952) is flawed. Despite contrary practices among most documentary filmmakers, this law insists that even if you make a small recording of an in-house conference in your office, you must get a censor certificate before you can show it to anyone. Technically, every video installation at an art exhibition is also illegal. That shows how stupid and outdated this law is.
How did the idea of making a film on love and loss in the conflict-ridden Valley come to you?
It is the second part of a trilogy that began with my film on Manipur. I have tried to put across a different way of looking at conflict, not repeat what others have already done — for instance, make films that essentially document human rights violations in the conflict-torn regions. I try to fill in the gaps instead.
Manipur Song is about how we have treated Manipur, how we have exiled it from our consciousness so we can justify the violence we perpetrate in the northeastern state and how the dominant gaze makes the Indian State look “neat and clean” even as it supports those who bash up young boys in Manipur. I didn’t, however, want to repeat the same thing in my Kashmir film and thought of looking at the conflict there from another angle, not the usual documentation of human rights violations.
Manipur has a century-old tradition of women’s activism. Women have been in the forefront of agitations since the early 20th century and have learnt how to cope with the loss of their loved ones. It hurts, of course, but it doesn’t paralyse them. Kashmiris, on the other hand, have come to experience such tragedies — killings and enforced disappearances — on a mass scale only in the past 25 years or so. They are yet to come to terms with the sudden loss of brothers, sons, husbands and fathers. So I decided to make a film on grief. On loss. On how different kinds of people deal with the death of their loved ones in different ways. So making the film was like creating the textures of that loss.