Why is Indian government afraid of Documentary Films

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s act of denying exemption of censor for three films selected for the 10th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala has invited strong reactions from various corners. The festival, one of its kind in the country, is an avenue for documentary filmmakers to get a wide audience for their films. It is particularly an important platform for independent filmmakers. What is common to these three films—In the Shade of Fallen Chinar, Directed by Fazil N.C. and Shawn Sebastian; The Unbearable Being of Lightness, directed by P.N. Ramachandra; and March March March, directed by Kathu Lukose—is that they deal with issues related to contemporary politics.

In the Shade of Fallen Chinar is a peep into the lives of a group of young artists who are students at the Kashmir University. The film’s central exploration is what art and music mean for the young generation in a “conflict zone”. The film The Unbearable Being of Lightness is on the movement for Justice for Rohith Vemula.

March March March tells the story of the student protests in JNU last year. The issues that these films deal with are “uncomfortable” ones for the central government.

Kamal, film director and the chairperson of the Kerala Chalachithra Academy, the organizers of the festival, called the act of the ministry “cultural fascism”. A.K Balan, state cultural affairs minister reacted that a documentary cannot be branded anti-national just because it deals with contemporary issues. He called upon people to resist the cultural fascism of the I&B ministry. Various organizations have come together to screen these films at public places and campuses. While films selected for film festivals have always been exempted from censorship, they however need to get an exemption of censorship certificate. According to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s policy for certification of films for film festivals, “in those festivals which are non-commercial in nature and viewership is confined to delegates, the Government would grant exemption [from certification] for both Indian and foreign films”. The policy further states that “In Exceptional cases, the Ministry of I&B will have the powers to reject, for reasons to be recorded in writing, the request for exemption to any film(s) if, in its opinion, it would impinge on the security or integrity of the country or affect law and order or affect relations with other countries.” (http://mib.nic.in/codesguidelinespolicies/policy-certification-films-film-festivals)

According to Kerala Chalachithra Academy, the organizers of the festival, the ministry has not cited any reasons for rejecting certificate of exemption to these films. One of the films, In the Shade of Fallen Chinar has been freely available online on YouTube for almost a year and has been watched by thousands of people. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBUwW5z6aNo ). It is ironic that the film did not need any certification for public viewing but is now stopped from being screened at a film festival with restricted audience. The director of The Unbearable Being of Lightness has also made his film available now (https://vimeo.com/181043555). As mentioned before, the festival is a unique one and screening one’s film in such a platform is not just about the number of viewers. It is an opportunity for the filmmakers to be in conversation with other filmmakers, film critics, general public, etc. Over the years documentary film festivals have emerged as sites of cultural resistance where “uncomfortable” questions are discussed. Thus the current move from the ministry is detrimental to both the medium of documentary films and the institution of documentary film festivals.

The makers of the film In the Shade of Fallen Chinar have stated that they will move court to challenge the ministry’s decision. However, one has to keep in mind that it is not merely the responsibility of the filmmakers at their individual capacity to challenge the decision. The issue is between the organizers of the festival and the I&B ministry. It is after the scrutiny of the organizers that these films were selected and if the organizers did not practice any overt or covert censorship, isn’t the act of the ministry an invasion to their autonomy?

What makes a documentary anti-national, asks A.K. Balan. We have seen how in recent times everything that the ruling regime doesn’t like is termed anti-national. And these three documentaries ask “uncomfortable” questions relevant to our times. And that is why these films have been denied certificate. While conducting protest screenings in public is an important way to overcome censorship, one has to keep in mind the fact that it is only for showing these films at the IDSFFK that there is a “ban” now. With the help of new technology and piracy it is easy to overcome censorship at one level, by making the film available to as many people as possible.

Since there are many ways for these films to reach people, and thanks to the “ban” more and more people get to know about and watch these films, the priority should be given to ensure that these films are screened at the festival. Two of these films have been selected under the competition category. Since these three films were selected after the scrutiny of the organizers, they should explore all means to screen the films at the festival. If it does not happen, they should explore if these films can still be considered for competition as there is no restriction on the Jury from watching these films.

Many years ago, when permission for a screening of Anand Patwardhan’s Ram Ke Naam was denied by the Malappuram (Kerala) district collector on the grounds that screening the film would create law and order issues, the film society activists adopted a creative way of countering this. They conducted a screening of the film in the border between Malappuram and the neighbouring Kozhikkode district. The screen was placed in the area belonging to Kozhikkode district and the audience watched the film from Malappuram.

We have the example of Rakesh Sharma who encouraged pirating his film Final Solution (2004) on the communal carnage in Gujarat in 2002. Denied permission to screen the film, Rakesh Sharma proposed a Pirate-and-Circulate campaign in Gujarat in which the idea was that you will get a free copy of the film if you promise to pirate five copies distribute for free. Similarly, in 2012, Ashvin Kumar released his documentary Inshallah Kashmir: Living Terror on YouTube for 24 hours as he knew from his previous experience with the film Inshallah Football that Inshallah Kashmir: Living Terror would not get a censor certificate. While new technology and piracy help the films to reach to people, not getting censor certificate hurts the filmmaker as they cannot sell their films “legally” or screen in theatres.

There are two kinds of censorship happening in this country now, one overt and the other covert. Increasingly there is a convergence of the state censorship and the mob censorship. The current situation reminds one of the events happened at the Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films (MIFF) in 2004. The Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) for Documentary, Short and Animation Films (Started as Bombay International Film Festival (BIFF) for Documentary, Short and Animation Films in 1990), added a clause in 2003 that the Indian documentary films need a censor certificate for screening at the 2004 edition of the festival. The filmmakers resisted this and formed a collective called Campaign Against Censorship. More than 275 filmmakers became part of this collective. They maintained that if the clause was not withdrawn they would boycott the festival. As a result this clause was removed. However, there was censorship in a covert manner.

A BJP government was in power at that time and there had already been signs of intolerance. Anand Patwardhan writes:

At MIFF 2002, things began to unravel. The anti-nuclear film War and Peace won the best film prize at this festival but when the Films Division tried to show it at its own festival in Kolkota, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting threatened to shut the festival down. The Films Division backed off but had no explanation to give to the press and the public. In private members of the Films Division and MIFF expressed regrets and told filmmakers in so many words that their hands were tied. Next the Censor Board got into the act. With a militant Hindu Right in the ascent and its political wing in power, many institutions were undergoing transformation. The Censor Board asked for 21 cuts in War and Peace. The first thing it wanted cut was the fact that Mahatma Gandhi was killed by Nathuram Godse, a militant Hindu, and that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) was banned after this act (Frontline, August 2, 2002). There was also a demand to delete all references to Tehelka, an arms scandal in which key leaders of the ruling coalition were captured by a hidden camera either taking bribes, or talking about taking bribes. Clearly the film was a deep embarrassment to the coalition and censorship was the answer.

Fortunately the attempt to mangle War and Peace did not succeed permanently. A year later the Bombay High Court upheld this writer’s right to freedom of expression and removed all censorship from War and Peace

(Frontline 14 February 2004). 

In the aftermath of the communal carnage in Gujarat in 2002, many filmmakers were making films on the issue. It was in such a context that an attempt was made to introduce censorship. While the Campaign Against Censorship succeeded in scrapping the clause, the festival organizers rejected around 40 films. Anand Patwardhan writes about how covert censorship was practiced:

MIFF 2004 rejected some 30 of the most outstanding new Indian films made on a range of themes – primarily political. Included in the reject list were several films on state complicity in the Gujarat violence and many excellent films on communalism, caste and gender, sexuality and the environment. Quite a number of these have already been screened at major international festivals and won awards

In such a situation, many filmmakers whose films had been selected to the festival withdrew their films in solidarity with the filmmakers whose films were rejected. The directors of the films rejected at the festival and other directors organized an alternative film festival called VIKALP: Films for Freedom at a venue near the venue of MIFF.

We know that what happens when a film or book is banned nowadays is it reaches to more and more people. We have seen this in the case of many films. In 2015, when a screening of Nakul Singh Sawhney’s film, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai on the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar was subjected to “mob censorship”, protest screenings and discussions were conducted across the country. People in various cities and states responded to the call for nation-wide protest screenings given by Cinema of Resistance, a movement that conducts alternative film festivals across the country. According to Cinema of Resistance, screenings were conducted in more than 50 cities across 22 cities on 25 August 2015. It must be the largest number of screenings for a documentary in India.

Similarly, Sanjay Kak’s film on Kashmir Jashn-e-Azadi, released in 2007, received a second life when the screening of the film was cancelled at Symbiosis University, Pune, as a result of the ABVP’s threat. Sanjay Kak’s film has been a target of right-wing attack. In 2013, the Hyderabad edition of Film Division’s “Kashmir before Our Eyes: A Festival of Films on Kashmir” was vandalized by some people, demanding that Sanjay Kak’s film be withdrawn from the festival.

In an interview with me a few years ago Sanjay Kak, who has been active in the Campaign Against Censorship and who never submits his films to the censor board maintains that one cannot fight censorship by engaging with the state. The only way to beat censorship is by conducting more screenings. He says:

A lot of documentary filmmakers, including myself, have been addressing the issue of censorship for more than a decade. Within the documentary filmmaking community, there is divided opinion on this. Those who advocate the need for a censor certificate argue that if there are good people on the Censor Board, then the certificate offers you some protection from the mob. But I am not convinced by this argument. If there are good people on the Censor Board today, there can be bad people tomorrow. And as we know, having a censor certificate is no protection against the mob. If I have a censor certificate for Jashn-e-Azadi, somebody can still stop the screening. He or she has to just go to the nearby police station and say that there will be a breach of peace if the film is screened. We cannot fight censorship only by addressing the state. We can fight censorship only when people are convinced that censorship is bad. Unless your viewers are willing to contest it, you can’t fight censorship. So, 12 years ago, when we started the anti-censorship campaign, we said to fight censorship by conducting more and more screenings. Send films to as many colleges, clubs, etc. Let people get to know what the film is about.

I see my position not necessarily as an anti-censorship one, but as a pro-screening one. When Symbiosis University in Pune cancelled a screening of Jashn-e-Azadi, at least ten other colleges approached me for screenings and discussion. The film got a second life. You have to fight censorship by conducting more screenings. Only then will you have a constituency. It is through engagement with various groups that you get people to support you. 

Various organizations in Kerala, especially student and youth movements, have come forward to conduct protest screenings of the “banned” films. It is interesting to note that many of the screenings are happening in campuses. In recent years, campuses have become important sites of resistance to the ruling ideologies and it is only natural that the medium of cinema or documentary provides a space for the coming together of various struggles. The idea of alternative documentary festivals attests to this fact. In fact, all the three films that have been “banned” are also on campuses.

While it is important to conduct protest screenings and discussions of these three films, one has to keep in mind the fact that in the case of the festival in Kerala, it is not the organizers of the festival who rejected these films. So it becomes the responsibility of the organizers and the state government to counter what they term as cultural fascism through all means possible. They should explore all means to screen these films at the festival and thus uphold the autonomy of the festival. At a time when a Left government is ruling the state, expectations are there that the state will take necessary measures to ensure that the films are screened at the festival and not to completely leave it to the realm of civil society.

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Raiot

Muhammed Afzal P Written by:

Ph D Scholar, Department of Cultural Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad

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