In the 1970s, when Vijay Tendulkar wanted to stage his play Sakharam Binder, a critique on caste and marriage, the censor board demanded 35 cuts. The celebrated Marathi playwright refused. If he’d made the suggested changes, Sakharam would not be himself anymore. ‘I carry two things in my pocket, a beedi and an expletive’, Sakharam says in the play. This dialogue explains the character in a nutshell.
The opposition to the play came from two quarters: the first was predictably the Shiv Sena, the other, surprisingly, was the mainstream Marathi theatre folk. The play was banned.
More than 40 years have since passed but little seems to have changed in Mumbai. Maharashtra remains the only state in the country with a censor board for stage performances. Here, the battle for freedom of expression is always being waged.
Currently, making headlines is Poor-Box Productions’s Agnes of God, an adaptation of playwright John Peilmeier’s original by the same name. A nun gives birth to a child but claims to be a virgin. On the stage, this sets off a series of investigations. Off it, the play has triggered a protest by the Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) run by Joseph Dias, “a concerned Catholic who wants the voice of his minority community heard”.
Ticketed shows of the play, earlier scheduled to take place at Sophia Bhabha hall, have been cancelled. The premiere was rescheduled from October 4 at the same venue to October 5 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). And last week, CSF managed to get Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) on board to have the play banned on the grounds of misrepresentation of the religious belief of the Christian community.
On Monday morning, Dias met Minister of Minority Affairs, Eknath Khadse to ensure it is called off. Director Kaizaad Kotwal was present at the meeting. While the show will take place, the minister has promised Dias and the Catholic community that its content will be looked into. As of now, whether or not Agnes of God will be staged again, is uncertain.
Theatre in Maharashtra has a long and turbulent history of censorship. Agnes of God is merely the latest to fall prey. Others are K P Khadilkar’s Keechak Vadh, Tendulkar’s Gidhade, Pradeep Dalvi’s Mee Nathuram Boltoy and Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story, recently released as a book after many years.
This propensity for censorship isn’t limited to plays alone. While it may no more be in news, the legal battle over All India Bakchod’s controversial Roast is still on. A bunch of comedians, set out to offend its participants, actors Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor in the insult comedy piece. Ironically, the list of the real “offended” comprises those who weren’t even present at the show.
In the past, this clampdown has forced artistes to reinvent. Take for instance Chaitanya Tamhane’s film Court, which subtly critiques the state and its habit of censorship. Whether or not the state likes it, the film is this year’s selection for the Academy Awards.