Making the Cuts—On Film Censorship in India

Shradha Sukumaran

Something as innocuous as a lit cigarette is enough to ignite the suspicious minds of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), also known as the Censor Board of India. To them, this symbol, the lines floating from a peace song, or a riot victim’s dispassionate account can work on impressionable Indian citizens, provoking them into creating law and order problems. However absurd this may sound, it is a line that filmmakers in India have begun to anticipate.

Bishakha Datta’s documentary on three sex workers has been stuck at the censors since June 2002—ever since the Board decreed that it promoted extra-marital sex, smoking, drinking, obscenity and prostitution. Among the twenty-one cuts that the CBFC demanded of Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace (YIDFF 2003) this year was an archival image from the Gandhi Film Foundation of Mahatma Gandhi being shot by his assassin Nathuram Godse. A slice of irreversible history. As for Ramesh Pimple’s Outburst (“Aakrosh”) that captures the plight of victims of 2002 riots in the Indian state of Gujarat, it was denied a certificate on the grounds that it “depicts violence. . . The overall impact is negative as it will lead to communal hatred wherever it is screened.”

But if this arbitrary and often whimsical nature of the Censor Board had no effect whatsoever on public viewing, then there would be no predicament. The filmmakers and the self-righteous Board that believes it maintains the delicate balance of peace in India would agree to disagree. In the last couple of years, however, the Censor Board’s powers have swollen. It always wielded the authority to allow your film be released in theaters by presenting the CBFC certificate. This, thankfully, didn’t deter documentary filmmakers from circulating their works at festivals. Now the biennial Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), organized by the government’s Films Division, has placed the condition that every entry should carry a CBFC certificate. Correction—every Indian entry. Foreign films are being wooed.

“Now there are many, many more documentary films being made in India, the attention seems to have moved from just issues political or sexual,” says Datta. “There is a new kind of film and there is a clampdown only on the documentaries. Otherwise, why would they bother with MIFF?” Datta’s film records the testimonies of three sex workers, presenting them as real people with real problems. It has traveled to the 3 Continents Film Festival in South Africa, Global Visions in Canada and the International Video Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, India. Datta, who lives in Mumbai, also intended to enter it in MIFF. “It is the whole underlying philosophy that is disturbing; that bureaucrats control creative content. We are fighting on principal.” She speaks for outraged filmmakers contesting the move.

For the Censor Board though, controversy has hardened into its second skin. It is manned mostly by bureaucrats. As one filmmaker puts it “any knowledge of cinema disqualifies you” as a member of the Board. It adheres to the Indian Cinematograph Act, set up in 1918. Film censor boards were set up in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Rangoon in 1920 and the first instance of censorship took place almost immediately. Film company Kohinoor produced two movies in 1921. Mahasati Ansuya escaped unscathed even though its actress Sakinabai appeared nude in a scene. But Bhakta Vidur was banned because its protagonist bore a strong resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi. The 1918 Act has been amended a couple of times since, with new censor classifications for Unrestricted and Adult viewing. With it has come the power with which the Board decides the fate of the world’s largest commercial film factory and that of documentary cinema as well. The Censor Board operates under the Indian government’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry. It has in the past demanded cuts in feature films like Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, Mira Nair’s Kamasutra, Deepa Mehta’s Fire, and more recently Anurag Kashyap’s Paanch, to name just a few.

In the U.S., a viewing body places guidelines suitable for young viewers, but allows the theatrical screening of just about anything. In India, a committee was first formed to debate whether kissing should be allowed (the makers of recent Hindi film Desire (“Khwahish”) publicized its seventeen kisses to draw audiences). It also demands “excessive violence” be snipped, yet these decisions are often fanciful. A beheading in Kapur’s Elizabeth raises hue and cry, but running a man’s head through a sugarcane crusher in Power (“Shakti”) is part of the Indian reality.

The Censor Board decisions gain further significance because they become more unreasonable when actually faced with reality through documentary cinema. A CBFC Regional Officer stopped the screening of War and Peace—meant to be the opening film—at a government-run festival last year in Kolkata. The flimsy excuse was that the tape did not arrive in time and when it did, it was damaged. Soon after, Patwardhan’s screening of the film in a private hall in Mumbai was disrupted on censorship grounds. This, after Patwardhan won the Best Film award at the government-run MIFF the same year.

When the communal riots broke out in Gujarat last year, filmmakers rushed to document what was mostly “state-sponsored terrorism.” More than one thousand people were killed, mainly Muslims, and thousands of homes destroyed. Both television and filmmakers caught victims recounting how the mobs were escorted by police and politicians. One director even had a viewing of unedited footage where journalists were free to attend the screening, but were requested not to write about the film for fear it would be suppressed.

Several films were born from the Gujarat riots. The general consensus is that the Censor Board has inserted the new stipulation for MIFF so that the government’s communal colors are not exposed. “There is no way out for the filmmaker,” points out Datta, “We can’t have screenings in preview theaters because when they get wind of it, letters are sent to the theater saying the screening is illegal.” For Pimple, the battle began long before MIFF or even Aakrosh. His film Chords on the Richter Scale also had a run-in with the Censors because it suggested a bias against the minority Muslims when aid was being distributed after the Gujarat earthquake in January 2001.

In the battle against the MIFF protocol, the filmmakers have support of the Indian Documentary Producers’ Association (IDPA). In a concerted move, the community has also met government officials in Delhi to voice their concerns. Even if the clause finally gets dropped, filmmakers suspect that officials will find new ways to block their entries through the backdoor. They fear that there will be a brief handed to the preview committee that chooses the entries, which will in turn obstruct certain films.


A person well acquainted with this heavy handedness and whose film is believed to have sparked off the recent controversy is Anand Patwardhan. India’s most important documentary filmmaker, Patwardhan has presented humane statements on bloodshed (Father, Son and Holy War), communalisation (In the Name of God) slum dwellers (Bombay Our City) and dam displacement (A Narmada Diary), to name just a few of his films. So when the first nuke tests went off in 1998, he abandoned other projects and set out with his camera.

Filming over three years, he pieced together a picture of the growing militarism in India, Pakistan and other parts of the world. This he placed side-by-side with the image of a smaller, but equally significant peace movement. War and Peace is a three-hour epic journey with a personal narrative by Patwardhan. It begins with Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 and it is this Gandhian message of peace that runs like a chord through it. Patwardhan divides the film into six chapters. It journeys through India’s fervent need to build up its nuke base in the name of security. By juxtaposing celebrations after the tests, interviews with defense analysts and ordinary people, the filmmaker peels off the layers to show the bombs’ political faces. War and Peace follows Patwardhan’s usual style of filmmaking. The camera is the inquisitive instrument. It questions reactions—struggling, tame, rabid and insidious—from people of all walks and factions. The film ends with a Gandhian encore; by then the audience is presented with the actuality, with which they form an opinion.

But it is the process of filming, the gentle uncovering over three hours, that is most attractive. Patwardhan covers all grounds in which nukes are buried, literally and figuratively. Across the border in Pakistan, he spies the same religious and political colors, and significantly, locals who declare that “hate is the creation of politicians.” Patwardhan captures classroom debates on the atom bomb and the peace notes of Pakistani rock band Junoon. In the U.S., Patwardhan listens to voices that question whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were necessary. In Japan, he records moving accounts of the scars one mad moment has left on victims decades later.

Finally, as Patwardhan drives his camera unhurriedly over India, all its sounds emerge. The farmer who lost his land to nuke test grounds. The residents subjected to the ghastly effects of uranium mining. Voices that reason that the bomb is in the interest of national security. The converted, who celebrate the testing by signing congratulatory notes in blood. Scientists puffed up with pride over their creations. And the tiny peace movement singing songs of harmony in the back of beyond, uncowed by the enormity of the task. Patwardhan’s own commentary is limited. As he puts it himself, his commentory “forms about five percent of my films. The statements come all from the people. But it’s the juxtapositions that bring out the contradictions in the situation.”

When War and Peace was screened at the MIFF festival in February 2002, the Sophia Bhabha Hall was packed. I sat on the floor of its balcony and when I came down after its screening, Patwardhan was surrounded by audience members who wanted to discuss the film. At the festival’s close, he won the International Jury and Best Film prizes. Since then, it has won awards at the 2002 Sydney International and the 2002 Earth-Vision (Tokyo) film festivals and traveled to festivals around the globe.

Yet in June, the CBFC suddenly wanted six cuts in War and Peace. This included “entire visuals and dialogues of political leaders, including the President, Prime Minister and Ministers.” By then, the Indian nuclear bomb’s creator Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam had been sworn into office as President. Another cut was a Dalit (suppressed class) song that described the killing of Mahatma Gandhi by a “high class” Brahmin, Nathuram Godse. But the most ridiculous, yet predictable cut demanded was that of the embarrassing Tehelka episode for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ridiculous because the undercover sting operation that caught the corrupt arms deal with the politicians had already been widely reported by newspapers and beamed on television. A commission also held the tapes to be authentic and those who appeared on them had already confessed their guilt. Blinking it out of Patwardhan’s film would have hardly erased it from public memory.

When Patwardhan protested and took the film before a Revising Committee, the cuts increased from six to twenty-one! The new ones were even more fantastic. Delete the visuals of Gandhiji being shot by Nathuram Godse, blank out visuals of a hindu rath that was a BJP election vehicle and almost all other references to the party. This despite the fact that Patwardhan had included the Bofors scam that had tainted the BJP opposition, the Congress party, years before. The filmmaker took the case before the Apellate Tribunal. When the matter came up before the Bombay High Court, War and Peace was ordered to be passed without any cuts.

During this period, War and Peace was stalled from any kind of public screenings. “It’s never been tough to make the films,” says Patwardhan, including his other portraits of India’s realities in Father, Son and Holy War, In the Name of God and In Memory of Friends. “The real battle has been to show them.” The Censor Board tussle with War and Peace evidently left its mark—perhaps because the government, through its MIFF festival, had already awarded the very same film twice. In August, MIFF suddenly announced that it would require every Indian entry to carry a CBFC certificate.


For Deepankar Mukhopadhyay, the National Film Development Corporation and Film Division (that organises MIFF) head, the uproar is unwarranted. “The matter is now under consideration in the Ministry (of Information and Broadcasting) and a decision will be taken from there. But I still cannot understand why there is one rule for one festival and one for another. If every Indian film in the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) comes under certification for so many years, then there should be one yardstick. If you want no censorship, then change the law.” Yet one Film Division official, on the condition of anonymity, says “It is a suppression of democracy. You are stifling the filmmaker’s voice.”

Rakesh Sharma is among the group of 150 filmmakers who have contested the move. He intends to enter his Final Solution, a “hot potato” on the Gujarat violence and the aftermath through June this year. “By convention, film festivals worldwide are exempted from censor certificates. Delegates to these festivals are usually film professionals and students. You are showcasing your work within the fraternity; for us, the last surviving space is lost.” The campaign is being backed by the Indian Documentary Producers’ Association. But it is largely due to the efforts of the filmmakers that there are signals now that the MIFF pre-condition may be withdrawn. “But this is part of a trend,” reasons Sharma, “that has taken root in the past couple of years. The regional Censor Board here has been more pro-active; going to colleges and halls to make sure documentary films without certificates aren’t screened. But my visuals aren’t any different from that of a news channel that beams it for days.”

Pink Mirror (“Gulabi Aaina”) director Sridhar Rangayan points out that it’s not just the films on Gujarat genocide that have suffered discrimination. Rangayan is faced with the unusual task of untangling his film from red-tapism. When Pink Mirror was selected for the New Delhi Digital Talkies Festival, the authorities applied for a censor certificate. The film got stuck. Rangayan, based in Mumbai, took it to the Mumbai Censor Board where it was first rejected outright, with no instructions for cuts or amendments. Pink Mirror is a feature film that is a day out of the lives of two drag queens—their loves, torments, bonding and insecurities. Rangayan feels the subject content accounts for the outright rejection. “Gay films in the past have been passed because they have been in English and are on the urban gay man. Mine was on drag queens rooted in the middle-class, speaking in Hindi. I feel their bonding as an alternate family structure was a blow to the patriarchal idea.”

Since then, the Mumbai Censor Board has used the excuse that they can’t interfere because it first went to the Delhi Board. “In any case, I think that there should be more participation of younger members in this generation so that they can argue their sensibilities,” says Raghavan. As the debate over the MIFF certificate gains ground, many even question the need for arbitary censorship in any kind of society. Especially since the media seems, in comparison, to be given a free hand. Says film critic and MIFF 2002 jury member Deepa Gahlot, “Documentary filmmakers should protest against censorship of all kinds or submit to it. They cannot have separate rules. In the case of the riot movies, anybody can take a video camera and place things out of context. Filmmakers should question the reasons for censorship instead.”


Shradha Sukumaran

Shradha Sukumaran is senior feature writer with National Daily and The Indian Express. She covers both commercial and documentary cinema for the papers.