Two individuals stand at opposite ends of the film-censorship spectrum in India: One a Bollywood filmmaker, Vishal Bhardwaj, who made Haider, and the other a young documentary filmmaker, Shubhradeep Chakravorty, who made En Dino Muzaffarnagar, a documentary on last year’s riots. Bhardwaj, who agreed to 41 cuts, was able to state in his film that the Indian army was responsible for the disappearance of Kashmiri men in 1995, blew up homes at will, tortured people in the most brutal way and let loose a counter-terrorism force that played havoc with Kashmiri society. He was also able to incorporate in his film another holy cow of a censorious society: incest.
This is a major step forward for free speech. Unfortunately, the benefits of the censor board’s “largesse” do not percolate down to “lesser” filmmakers like Chakravorty, who could not get permission to screen his film. The lame excuse was that he had shown a specific political party to be responsible for the riots and that a particular caste had also been mentioned. A depressed Chakravorty died due to a brain haemorrhage soon after. At about the same time that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) was sanctioning Bhardwaj’s film, my documentary, The Textures of Loss, on depression in Kashmir, was rejected because it had the line: “ the paramilitary forces reacted with disproportionate violence”.
The CBFC and its sister organisation, the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), act with an arrogance that has no sanction in law. At the heart of this arrogance is the misconception that cinema lies outside the pale of freedom of speech, guaranteed by the Constitution.
It is widely believed, including by the filmmaking fraternity, that the act from which film censorship in India derives its powers overrides free speech. But the grounds on which a film may be refused sanction for public exhibition have been clearly specified. These grounds are precisely the “reasonable restrictions” on free speech listed in the Constitution. No more. Nowhere is there any mention of why film needs to be treated differently from other media. The only difference is that a film is vetted before it enters the public domain, as opposed to other media, where action is taken ex-post.
There is no dearth of Supreme Court judgments which have held that reasonable restrictions have to be put to test and enforced minimally.
In Ramesh vs Union of India, the SC observed that “that the effect of the words must be judged from the standards of reasonable, strong-minded, firm and courageous men, and not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor of those who scent danger in every hostile point of view”. Yet, small-time officials in the CBFC and FCAT feel emboldened to object to a film on absurdly subjective grounds and a desire to please their masters. The biggest victims of such arbitrariness are documentary filmmakers, whose work is often overtly political.
Even the most carefully crafted work can come to naught if an official of the censor board does not have the sensibility to understand nuances of image and language. This affects not only the right to free speech but also the right to practise a trade/ craft.
Minor officials routinely send out circulars widening the list of “sensitive areas” which need to be “censored”. With each list sent out, the censoring official acts with even more alacrity. It is not unlike a gleeful Yossarian in Catch 22, who decided one day that he would remove everything in the letters he was supposed to censor except an “a”, “an” or “the”!
Our SC has been very clear on this. In Indian Express Newspapers vs Union Of India, Justice E. Venkataramiah observed : “There could not be any kind of restriction on the freedom of speech and expression other than those mentioned in Article 19 (2) and it is clear that there could not be any interference with that freedom in the name of public interest”. Importantly, it needs to be recognised that censorship is an oxymoron in today’s world. Given the reach of television and the internet, neither of which can be censored, it seems absurd to single out cinema for this treatment.
Chakravorty’s documentary was stopped by the same paranoia that Rakesh Sharma’s film on the Gujarat riots was a victim of a decade before. The censors felt that communal harmony could be disturbed. In fact, the films are about the disturbing of communal harmony. Both films have since been screened extensively in the country and abroad. Not one riot has followed. These are fears only in the heads of those who control thought. In fact, it is the extensive screening of such films that is required, not their banning. Any control that has to be exercised must be on those who cause the riots and not on those who expose them.
The writer is a Delhi-based filmmaker