These aren’t the best of times for Indian filmmakers. Even as a high-decibel coalition of interest groups threatens to stall the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati, the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), scheduled to open in Goa next week, has run into controversy. Two films — Ravi Jadhav’s Nude, which was to be the inaugural film and S Durga by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan — selected for the Panorama by a 13-member jury, are missing from the final list released by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Jury chairman, Sujoy Ghosh, has resigned while the aggrieved directors have sought an explanation from the ministry.
Both the directors suspect that their films have been dropped from the Panorama because of the I&B officialdom’s squeamishness about the titles. Kumar had renamed his much-acclaimed film as S Durga — the lead character is called Durga — after the censors objected to the original title, Sexy Durga.
If the I&B ministry is indeed responsible, it must explain why it deemed it necessary to change a list of films chosen by a jury of experts. The Panorama jury has the mandate and autonomy to pick films that are worthy of an IFFI screening. Any intervention by outsiders, including the ministry, in its work is tantamount to imposing censorship and can subvert an institutionalised process. The ministry’s role in the conduct of the IFFI certainly does not include deciding on the films to be screened. In any case, film screenings at festivals like the IFFI are different from box-office releases. Festival screenings attract audiences of committed cinema-watchers and offer space for experimental and independent films, like Nude and S Durga, whose aesthetics may not have a wider appeal. There is now a deliberate attempt to shrink such spaces.
This discomfort with creative works that refuse to conform with populist or majoritarian notions of aesthetics, history and morality is increasingly becoming all pervasive. Our Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech and expression to all, but small interest groups frequently manage to silence the artist in the name of communal sensitivities and notions of morality. Unfortunately, in states like Rajasthan (Padmavati) and Tamil Nadu (the attack on writer Perumal Murugan), the governments have sided with the mob. The IFFI-Panorama controversy joins a dismal and lengthening list.