The 48th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) that ended on Tuesday will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. It started with the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry refusing to allow two films, S Durga and Nude, to be screened in the Indian Panorama section. The I&B ministry’s unprecedented action led to the resignation of the Panorama jury chairman, Sujoy Ghosh. Though the director of S Durga, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, got a directive from the Kerala High Court in favour of the film, and a new jury voted in favour of screening it, officials raised technical objections to deny it screen-space at the IFFI. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) withdrew its earlier certificate to the film, and sought to re-examine it. The censors had earlier objected to the film’s original title Sexy Durga, on grounds that it could hurt Hindu sentiments, and got the director to change it. It now claimed that since the hashtag of the changed title is S### Durga, the “very basis of title registration and changes (that were) effected” were “effectively undermined”.
What stands out in this sorry episode is the restrictive mindset revealed by the I&B ministry and the CBFC in denying an independent and acclaimed young film-maker an audience. In this age of technology, it is absurd that the ministry and CBFC officials believe they can suppress a film by refusing it a censor’s certificate. The film has already been screened in several international and Indian festivals and many more are likely to watch it online. If in the past, Kumar had difficulties marketing his film, he will find it easier now, given the curiosity sparked by the CBFC and I&B ministry’s moves against it. However, the question remains: How can a bureaucracy entrusted with the task of promoting cinema so zealously work to curb filmmakers? What has it gained by usurping the mandate of a jury and censoring the list of films? It was hoped that sanity will be restored at the CBFC when Prasoon Joshi replaced Pahlaj Nihalani as chairman. Joshi, a poet and song-writer, was expected to help it rise above outdated notions of decency and morality, usher in a more open and modern sensibility. If the S Durga episode is any indication, those hopes have been belied.
The no-show of S Durga at the IFFI comes in the wake of the orchestrated campaign against Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati. Self-styled custodians of Rajput honour threatened violence against the cast of a film they have not yet seen. Chief ministers entrusted with the duty to ensure the rule of law abandoned their constitutional responsibility — the latest to join this timid set is Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Institutions meant to safeguard constitutional freedoms seem to be conspiring with the mob to control and censor creative freedoms. A climate that is repressive for artists is being created with state complicity.