Dennis Hanlon and Sanghita Sen shine a light on the resurgence of film censorship in India, and find that this time it’s not sex and violence but politics behind the bans.
For some time now, censorship of Indian cinema has been relaxing in terms of displays of violence—no cuts were demanded from famed director Anurag Kashyap’s hyperviolent Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)—and sex, as evidenced by James Bond’s first, albeit shortened, onscreen kiss with a Bond girl in Spectre (2015). At the same time, though, incidents of political censorship by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) appear to be on the rise, and filmmakers have been quick to point the finger at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its appointees on the board.
On 17 June, Udta Punjab (Punjab on High, directed by Abhishek Chaubey), a much-anticipated Bollywood film starring Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, and Kareena Kapoor, premiered in Indian theatres with an A (adult) rating. The release might have been delayed, though, had the Bombay High Court not intervened mere days before.
The CBFC had been demanding 89 changes, among them the removal of all references to cities in Punjab, arguing that the film’s depiction of the rampant drug culture there disparaged the state.
A war of words in the media ensued between Kashyap, the film’s co-producer, and CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani. Kashyap called Nihalani a ‘megolomaniac’, comparing him to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. For his part, Nihalani darkly hinted that the film’s producers had accepted money in exchange for casting the state in a poor light from the Aam Admi Party (AAP or Common Man’s Party, founded in 2012 by Arvind Kejriwal, now Chief Minister of Delhi). The AAP is currently locked in an election battle in Punjab with the ruling BJP headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who appointed Mr Nihalani.
The High Court essentially endorsed the argument Kashyap had been making for weeks with support from many Bollywood luminaries; namely, that the CBFC’s role is to determine which rating a film receives, not to practice censorship. Since the producers had submitted the film for an A rating, there was no justification for the cuts demanded.
The censorship practiced by the central government is having a predictably chilling effect on other institutions. Less than a week after the Udta Punjab scandal was resolved, the state-sponsored Nandan theatre in Kolkata refused to screen indie film Cosmic Sex (A. Chakraborty, 2015), citing ‘aesthetic’ grounds.
In 2013, the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association (IMPAA) refused to register the title of the indie film Kafiron ki Namaaz (Prayers of the Infidel), a necessary first step before a film can be reviewed by the CBFC. The film bluntly addresses the politically-charged issue of the behaviour of Indian soldiers in Kashmir and begins with a revenge killing of a soldier by the local populace. Most of the film takes place in the lobby of a hotel in Kashmir on Christmas Eve. There, a Bengali author encounters a recently court martialed soldier who narrates graphic accounts of the raping of local women by Indian soldiers.
After struggling for nearly three years to get the title approved, director Ram Ramesh Sharma and producer Bhargav Saikia finally decided on 6 April this year to release a high definition version of the entire film on YouTube. Since then, it has been viewed more than 474,052 times.
While YouTube solved the filmmakers’ censorship problems, they had to forgo recovering the money their families had invested in the project. In the long run, though, the controversy surrounding Kafiron ki Namaaz and the largely positive online response may work to the advantage of Sharma and Saikia, who dropped out of film school to make it.
Not all filmmakers are so fortunate as to have backers willing or able to write off their investment in a film that runs into a wall of censorship. In 2014, acclaimed documentarian Kamal Swaroop followed Modi, Kejriwal and other party leaders as they campaigned in Banaras during the national election. Inspired by Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, the resultant film, Dance for Democracy: Battle for Banaras, was rejected out of hand by the CBFC. Usually, as in the case of Udta Punjab, the board demands certain cuts or changes; in the case of Dance for Democracy, though, it simply noted that the film was unsatisfactory in its entirety. Director Swaroop has denied any political agenda of his own and claims that he was meticulous about giving equal screen time to the various candidates, although he does concede that all parties come off looking bad as they hurl insults at each other.
Unlike Kashyap, Swaroop doubts that the CBFC receives directives from the office of Mr Modi; rather, he suspects that a new atmosphere of extreme caution exists throughout the country, with no one willing to risk offending Modi and the BJB. Swaroop rejects the idea of releasing the film on YouTube as economically infeasible, citing its relatively high production cost for a documentary. And when asked if he would consider distributing the film via Netflix, he responded that he doubted Netflix would take the chance, having only recently been permitted to enter the Indian market. His investors will have to try to recover their funds through international sales alone, always a risky proposition for an Indian film.
In countries where they are not blocked, YouTube, Vimeo and other online video streaming sites offer filmmakers facing censorship the opportunity to reach audiences otherwise denied access to their work. However, unless the content can be effectively monetized, banned feature films with relatively large budgets and high production values like Kafiron ki Namaaz will continue to prove more the exception than the rule.
The coming months will show whether or not the High Court’s ruling in the Udta Punjab case will curb Mr Nihalani and the CBFC’s zeal for political censorship on behalf of Mr Modi and his BJP government.
Political censorship is nothing new to Indian cinema, of course, as witnessed by the career of Anand Patwardhan, an independent documentarian who has been battling censorship since Indira Gandi’s 1975-7 Emergency. However, there is a growing perception among the English-language media and its middle class audience that it is once again on the rise.
One thing revealed by the recent scandals, though, is that filmmakers, both independents and members of the Bollywood establishment, are increasingly unafraid to speak out against the CBFC.