April issue 2015
On the Chopping Board
When the Indian government banned the documentary India’s Daughter by Leslie Udwin, on the rape that shook the country in December 12, there was an outpouring of anger across the world. The government held that the film ridiculed India because of an interview in it with one of the rapists who said that had the girl not fought back, had she accepted her situation, she would have lived. Never mind that the government’s position ended up equating India with the views of one convicted rapist.
The film and its director became a cause celebrÃ©, Hollywood stars came out in support of the documentary, and India then truly became an object of ridicule. But this is not the first film India has banned, nor, going by what we know, will it be the last.
There’s a mile-long list of films and documentaries that are officially or unofficially banned in all of India or parts of it, and the India Home Ministry perhaps thought the storm over this one would blow over quickly, as it had done in other cases.
Around the same time last year, the government had banned the screening of another documentary. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) refused permission on the grounds that “most of the visuals are of a disturbing nature and not fit for public exhibition.” An official may have inadvertently blurted out the real reason when he said that it would “strain India’s friendly relations” with another country. That country was Sri Lanka. The film was called No Fire Zone, and aired allegations that Sri Lankan forces committed war crimes against Tamil civilians in the violent last stages of the war against the Tamil Tigers. The director of the film, Callum MacRae, streamed the film on the internet free for viewers in India.
Days after the bruising controversy over India’s Daughter, the CBFC disallowed the screening of the international box office hit, 50 Shades of Grey, in India, deeming it too erotic for Indian audiences. The Board, which was recently reconstituted with several BJP loyalists, has also revived a 2003 list banning the use of expletives in films.
It is not just a BJP-dominated Censor Board that loves banning. In January, the Board, then packed with UPA loyalists, succumbed to representations from Sikh groups and recommended banning the film, Messenger of God, in which the rock singer-leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda cult plays himself as a saviour. The government ignored the recommendation as Dera leaders had helped the BJP during the Haryana elections. When the film was released, the Punjab government banned it immediately.
Even in cases where the CBFC permits screening, filmmakers, Indian or foreign, can never be sure their work will be seen by audiences in some or all parts of the country, because there is no telling who might be offended by it. State governments stop screenings if they find it might get them political traction, usually on the pretext that the film could create law and order problems.
Chennai in south India, where I live, has a thriving film industry, but also a thriving ban industry. All it takes for a film not to be screened in the state of Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai is the capital, is a whiff of Sri Lanka in it.
Some six months ago, a film with one of Tamil cinema’s biggest stars was set for release when word went out that the financier had business links with then Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s family. Several pro-Tamil Eelam groups came together to demand a ban. Someone went to court against the move, but his petition was thrown out. The film was released, but all it took was goons to vandalise a high-profile multiplex where it was screened, and cinema owners refused to screen it anymore. Finally, the producers of the film had to delete the name of the financiers to bring the movie back to cinema houses.
Another film that audiences in Chennai never saw, at least not in cinemas, was Madras CafÃ©. The film depicts a fictionalised account of the Indian role in Sri Lanka, including the killing of Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber. It got rave reviews all over India, but not in Chennai, where all the raving and ranting was against the screening of the movie. The Tamil Nadu government agreed, and citing law and order concerns, did not permit cinemas to show it.
Kamal Haasan, the Tamil star with a pan-India following, also learnt the hard way that it’s not as easy as just making a film and screening it. Two years ago, he made Viswaroopam, investing big bucks on what he thought was going to be a blockbuster spy thriller around the current themes of Islam and the war on terror. It immediately ran afoul of Muslim political groups in Tamil Nadu, who said it portrayed Islam wrongly. The ruling party in the State was all too quick to agree. It was banned for 15 days. Faced with huge financial losses, Haasan decided not to stand on any free speech principles, but surrendered to the demand that that he make several cuts to the film before it was allowed in cinemas.
Across India, it is much the same. It has not really mattered that there exists a landmark Supreme Court judgement in the Ore Oru Gramathiley (In One Village) case, which explicitly stated that there could be no ban on a film after it had been cleared by the Censor Board for release, and that it was the government’s duty to enable the film to be screened and maintain law and order. Sadly, the government’s reflex in many cases is to lay the responsibility of maintaining law and order at the door of the filmmaker.
As much as this is a country that makes the most number of films in the whole world, someone somewhere always wants some of those films not to be shown and, alarmingly frequently, manages to win out. There was a Hindutva build-up for a ban on Aamir Khan’s PK. It was fortunate to escape the axe.
So it was with some relief that those who still believe in free speech greeted the Supreme Court judgement striking down the notorious Section 66 A of the IT Act, which was being used to arrest unsuspecting FaceBook and Twitter users for breaking the law, though no one quite knew what their crime was. However, this does not mean that India has now become a paradise for free speech, the Supreme Court’s reiteration of a constitutionally guaranteed freedom is a small victory.
It was in the midst of the controversy over India’s Daughter that the journalistic community lost Vinod Mehta, the editor who midwifed many a fine publication, including the weekly The Sunday Observer in the 1980s and Outlookmagazine, which he began in 1996 as a competitor to India Today, and with which he remained till the end though he had relinquished the reins of its editorship a couple of years back.
How would Vinod have reacted to the ban on Leslie Udwin’s film had he been alive and well and running a publication? Certainly I think, first and foremost with a newsman’s glee at a good story, and then with a good journalist’s contempt for censorship. He would have run a cover story on the Indian penchant for bans, whether of films, books or art, giving Udwin all the space in the paper to plead her case. He would have shown the documentary on his pages if that were possible.
I worked for eight months at The Sunday Observer in the late 1980s, as a subeditor/reporter in the Delhi office, a tiny premises in Daryaganj with one unisex loo for the entire floor, if not for the whole building. Vinod wasn’t bothered so much about the arrangements. His focus was on bringing out a paper every week with great stories, big photographs and fantastic layouts, when most newspapers thought little about what designers now call “look and feel.”
As the first weekly newspaper in India, The Sunday Observer was a pioneer. It had politics but written differently from the way the dailies covered it, plus a good mix of conscience and fun stories. And it covered art, culture and film like no other paper did then. Vinod had clearly modelled it after the British weekly papers. He loved stories that stuck their necks out, stories with which the paper would create a splash every Sunday morning. He read through the British papers, looking for gossipy tidbits that we would reproduce in a special column. On Fridays and Saturdays, he restlessly paced through the three small rooms in the office waiting for the stories that we would be furiously tapping out on clunky typewriters. Often he would stand silently behind, watching the reporter’s clumsy efforts at coherence.
My stint at the Observer was too brief for me to get to know him well, but I knew from that short spell that I had worked with a one-of-a kind journalist’s editor.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s April 2015 issue.
Nirupama Subramanian is Deputy Editor, The Hindu. She was the newspaper's correspondent in Pakistan from May 2006 to February 2010.