Words like ‘civil war’, ‘struggle for independence’ and ‘assassination’ may sound like those that belong to history textbooks, but these are omnipresent in Indian arts and visual culture. Whenever a filmmaker delves deep into chronicles that once shook the nation, he is bound to invite trouble. Ravinder Ravi’s Kaum de Heere is no exception. Based on the assassins of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, the Punjabi film ran into rough waters a day before its release in India. (The movie hit the global circuit in March and did reasonably well.)
The film went through two rounds of revision before getting the censor certificate. When Central Board of Film Certification (CFBC) chairperson Leela Samson was deconstructing it for the third time, the filmmakers were surprised. The marketers had been paid a hefty amount for promotion; the distributors were on board. Making his debut in the film, singer- turned-actor Raj Kakra had used his clout in social media to spread the word about the film’s subject. Suddenly, there was pandemonium.
A few hours before Kaum de Heere was supposed to be released, when tickets had already been sold out in many theatres in Chandigarh, Samson announced its withdrawal. “I received two written objections from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which pushed me to watch the film and come to this decision,” Samson said.
According to officials from the ministries and the CFBC, the film’s content could lead to a law-and-order situation as it glorifies Indira Gandhi’s two Sikh bodyguards — Beant Singh and Satwant Singh — who pumped 33 bullets into her in 1984.
The decision, taken under Rule 32 of the Cinematograph (Certification) Rules, questions the competency of the CFBC officials and its tainted CEO Rakesh Kumar, who had earlier passed the film. The CBI arrested Kumar three days before the release of Kaum de Heere in an alleged bribery case along with Shripati Mishra, an authorised censor agent, and Sarvesh Jaiswal, an advisory panel member of the CFBC. It can be said that this provoked the Central government to direct the chairman to re-examine the film, which is possible under Rule 32.
Kumar was apprehended along with his accomplices for demanding a bribe of Rs 70,000 to clear Mor Dauki Ke Bihav, a regional language film from Chhattisgarh. Didn’t the CEO consult the chairman before deciding the fate of a film?
“No, he was not in the habit of consulting me,” says Samson. “He was running the organisation independently. He had been advised that we were not important as our terms had expired.”
However, Satish Katyal, the producer of Kaum de Heere, believes that Kumar’s arrest has nothing to do with the film. “We had applied for the certificate in January and it took five months for the film to be cleared,” he says. “We came to know that Kumar used to take 1 lakh for a film to be cleared in less than a week. For example, if one applies on the 22nd of a month, the film would get the certificate on the 29th. We did not do any such thing or else the film would not have been delayed.”
He believes it is a case of political intervention rather than censorship. “If the CFBC authorities signed and cleared the film in May, how come they did not find any fault then?” asks Katyal. “Suddenly, how can they find objectionable content? I believe it is some kind of political pressure that led to this verdict.”
His rage against Samson is also because of her late response, which cost Katyal lakhs of rupees. “Before the day of release, we had made all our payments by 5 pm and she told us about her objection at 7 pm,” he says. “I could have saved some money had she told me a little earlier. Many shows in Punjab were housefull, but the viewers were refunded in some theatres.”
However, Samson claims that she is unaware of any interference. “Perhaps, he (Katyal) has some information that I am not privy to,” she says. “As far as I am concerned, no political pressure of any kind was brought to bear on me.
“Initially, Kaum de Heere was put through the first examination and was refused certification. It then went through two revision committees. I am yet to understand why this happened. The CEO is not available to clarify this. It should have gone to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal with an independent judge meant to redress the grievances a producer might have against the decision of the CFBC. However, a second review was conducted and the certificate was given to the party. Considering the arrest of the CEO, we are not sure whether the certificate was granted for a consideration.”
But Katyal blames the Indian Youth Congress (IYC). “Some politicians demanded for a ban without even watching the film,” he says. “Are they astrologers? How can they reach the conclusion that it could create communal problems? The IYC has been actively protesting against the film, which scared the government. Is the government’s mechanism so weak that they cannot handle 200-odd people? Not only the IYC, some Congress leaders had a role to play in this issue.”
Meanwhile, IYC president Rajiv Satav rubbished such allegations and offered a bizarre explanation. “Since the NDA government came to power, there has been a rise in communal tensions across the country,” says Satav, who is the Congress MP from Hingoli in Maharashtra. “Funding should be stopped to films that glorify the people who killed a great leader like Mrs Gandhi. There will be tension in Punjab if the film is released. The way the assassins are portrayed is objectionable. I think this is a plan hatched by the NDA. The film has been stopped for now, but it can be released in the future. The celebration of such films will have an adverse impact on peace and prosperity. The depiction of Indiraji’s killers as heroes will not be tolerated.”
As a result, Katyal and his team look like a crew of nervous submariners sailing through hostile waters. The money is lost, though they expect to retrieve it. Katyal says that his team will approach the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal for justice.
Filmmaker and actor Sashi Kumar, who made Kaya Taran (2004) on the aftermath of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, feels sorry about the state of Indian cinema as its fate is decided by pressure groups and hoodlums. “The censor process has become a mockery,” he says. “Getting the certificate is not the end of the road. One might get it but the person also needs to get a clearance from the local mafia and other agents or authorities who are in the fray, whoever is in charge of a particular area, to release the film.”
“In many cases, these groups raise objections and later withdraw them once they are paid. They can all be bought off. These people wait to see if there is anything that upsets their caste or community so that they can raise an objection. If 10 people get together and say that your film can’t be shown, it can’t be.”
But the filmmaker from Kerala admits the fact that a producer is bound to fall in trouble if he makes a film ‘glorifying’ the assassins of Indira Gandhi.
Kakra, who played the role of Beant Singh, left no stone unturned in his preparation. “I visited Beant Singh’s family to know more about him,” he says. “His son Sarabjeet helped me understand his insight and nature. Our research team worked for two-and-a-half years so that we don’t miss out any detail. After all this, when the film is not released, it is a horrible feeling.”
The actor feels that every community has the right to present their own history. “I don’t know what is the problem with this film,” he says. “Such is the environment now that we don’t even need any more promotion. It has become an international issue.”
Located in the neighbourhood of Sion in Mumbai, Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar houses at least 9,000 Sikh families. On 14 August, the otherwise cheerful colony wore a gloomy look. Local youth had planned to catch the film at the K Sera Sera Miniplex in Kurla but the prints had not reached the theatre.
Among those keen to catch the film was Sunmeet Singh, 21, a student of Khalsa College. “Every community should have the freedom to present their culture to the people — their past and the situations that they had to go through,” he says. “Stopping that would be curbing that independence. More than that, we are all youngsters. I am aware of my roots, but there are many who might not be. The youth should be told about their past.”
According to the makers of Kaum de Heere, the decision of the CFBC and the home ministry has raised serious questions about the independence enjoyed by the filmmaking fraternity.
“Our idea was not to create controversy,” says Katyal. “I heard some politicians saying that films based on history reopen old wounds and hence should not be made. There have been films on the 1993 riots and 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, where many lives were lost. What about them? Due to pressure, a creative mind gets disturbed. It is a hindrance to the development of art and the artist.”
Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya is a freelance journalist