[Reader-list] Awkward Scissorhands

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Thu Aug 14 02:31:50 IST 2003

The Hindustan Times
Thursday, August 14, 2003  
Awkward Scissorhands
Ruchir Joshi

  Imagine if every item in this newspaper, whether report, opinion, 
photograph or cartoon, were to be preceded by a stamp, 'This piece of 
writing/image has been approved for publication by the Board of 
Newspaper Censors'. Imagine if these censors thought they had the 
right to excise actual quotes from public figures, say, something the 
prime minister has said publicly because they didn't like the way the 
quotes were used in a story.

Assume, also, that this 'Board' had several unwritten, internal 
guidelines such as: no item shall discuss defence issues, religious 
bigotry or damage to the environment; no item shall identify any 
politician by name; corruption and other misdemeanours by public 
figures and important businessmen are not fit subjects for printed 
journalism. Extremely fanciful? In the case of the print media, 
perhaps, but in the case of documentary film-making in this country, 
this happens to be the absurd reality.

Sometimes the shifting of a small pebble can trigger off a huge 
landslide. In this case, the pebble comes in the shape of a tiny 
change in the application form for the Mumbai International Film 
Festival 2004. Unlike the previous MIFF festivals, the government 
organisers have now asked that all Indian entries be accompanied by a 
censor's certificate. Unsurprisingly, this is not required of the 
foreign entries. Where, someone could ask, is the problem? If Mera 
Dil Dhak Dhak Dhadke from Bombay and Assassinator 16 from Hollywood 
need censor certificates before public showings then why should an 
Indian documentary be exempt?

The problem occurs on two levels. First, there is the question of 
whether film festivals should exclude any film on the grounds that it 
hasn't received a censor certificate. Second, there is the larger 
issue of film censorship in general. Taking the first one first, 
traditionally, film festivals in this country have been pretty 
flexible about Indian entries not having censor certificates, 
especially in the case of documentaries. The idea having been that 
clear access to a director's ideas was more important than 
bureaucratic procedure. Where the certificate has mattered is in 
competitive fiction festivals, as proof of a feature film's 
completion date. But in non-competition screenings, (besides the 
classic, uncensored, foreign sex sequences that cause riots outside 
theatres), there are many examples of the latest offering by some 
maestro or other being finished and the first OK print being rushed 
straight from the lab to the projection room in time to open or star 
at a festival.

So why has the MIFF suddenly changed its rules? One obvious answer is 
that the number of 'political' documentaries being made has grown 
exponentially over the last decade. Each new atrocity has spurred 
documentary work, as should happen. Now, after the Babri masjid, 
Narmada, Pokhran II and the Gujarat killings, there is a whole body 
of fresh films which directly expose and challenge the powers that 
be. These range from Sanjay Kak's film on the Narmada Andolan, Words 
on Water, Amar Kanwar's searing Night of Prophecy and Anand 
Patwardhan's War and Peace on the issue of India's nuclearisation.

Patwardhan is from Mumbai and he has recently won an epic battle with 
the Censor Board against the cuts the board demanded for War and 
Peace (at least one cut being a clip of Vajpayee speaking, taken from 
a television broadcast!). The judgment of the Bombay High Court 
handed down is potentially a landmark one, one that means that 
film-makers now have a robust precedent to back them against 
government-appointed censors eager to carry out the muzzling on 
behalf of their masters.

Does this defeat mean that the censorwallas give up their project? 
Not in the least. They know that not every film-maker will have 
Patwardhan's tenacity or international stature. The more obstacles 
they put up the harder it gets for a film-maker, especially someone 
less established, to show their work. Wherefore, one suspects, this 
new rule in the MIFF form - before an informed international audience 
is allowed to see an Indian film, it will have to pass through the 
small-eyed filter of a censor committee growing like a fungus out of 
the legislative cesspool of the last century.

Why bring up the last century? Because the whole censorship apparatus 
is based on the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1952 which is about as 
relevant today as the law that forced a man with a red flag to walk 
in front of the first motor cars. While this cannot be the place to 
discuss the offensively obsolete film certification system as a 
whole, it certainly seems to be the moment to state the glaringly 
obvious: it is time to remove the yolk of censorship from non-fiction 
films. Just as print and TV have the leeway to exercise self-control, 
so should documentary film have the right to self-govern.

If there are fears that people will 'misuse' (that favourite word of 
conservatives on both the Right and the Left) this 'freedom', then 
laws pertaining to incitement to violence can be strengthened. If 
this is done and enforced, you will soon find the many communalist 
rags - the ones that spout their hatred unfettered by any legislation 
- in trouble far quicker than any documentary.

In any case, the pebble loosened by the organisers at MIFF suddenly 
threatens a full-scale rockfall. Within the last few days, I have 
witnessed a massive proliferation of e-mails from independent 
film-makers from all over India. Different kinds of documentarists, 
with diverse styles and differing politics, including some who could 
previously barely bring themselves to speak to each other, are all 
suddenly, vociferously, united in opposition to the censor 
certificate clause. Discussion of boycotts and other action has now 
moved from mere talk to a far more serious level.

The replying sneer sits up in large neon: what would happen if all 
321 (just a random number here) independent documentary film-makers 
in India go on strike? Well, it wouldn't have anywhere near the 
effect of, say, certain 11 cricketers downing tools, nor, say, the 
top 30 film-stars from Mumbai and Madras walking off the sets at the 
same time, nor that of a strike by hospital nurses or postal workers.

But, on the other hand, we have here a government with its 
hench-committees trying to police moving pictures in a time of 
video-downstreaming, in a time where there are VCRs in every nook and 
cranny of the country, where broadcast-quality filming can be done 
with a palm-sized camera, editing take place on a laptop, and where 
copying VHS tapes and DVDs is easier than contracting malaria. While 
not wanting to see any unseemly confrontation, there is a part of me 
that says: just you try it. Go ahead. It will only sharpen people's 
resolve, their energies and their resourcefulness.

Given the dreadful challenges that we face today, it may sound 
hopelessly marginal to be talking about documentary film-making and 
censorship certificates. But the fact is the issue is tightly 
entwined with the main problems that confront us: competing versions 
of 'truth' and of 'history'; different notions of justice, human 
rights and the right to free expression; how this society digests new 
technology, including, centrally, technology that has to do with news 
and moving images that carry information and opinion.

In order to reach a truly free currency of ideas and images we need 
to throw out a lot of the old rubbish that entraps us. I come from a 
childhood where films began with a dirty, endlessly unmoving, 
censor's certificate and ended with the national anthem playing over 
a tricolour fluttering as if it was on speed. We've got rid of the 
flag. Now it's time to divest ourselves of that nonsense in front.

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