Freedom of Expression

A battle won

Print edition : June 06, 2003


Scene from War and Peace.-

Scene from War and Peace.-

The Mumbai High Court's directive to the Central Board of Film Certification to clear Anand Patwardhan's documentary film `War and Peace' throws up important questions regarding the freedom of expression. (Published in the issue dated June 6, 2003.)

FILM-MAKER Anand Patwardhan's award-winning documentary War and Peace has finally been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). On April 24, the Mumbai High Court ordered that it be passed without any cuts or changes, bringing to an end a year-and-a-half-long struggle to obtain a certificate of release.

For Anand Patwardhan and several other film-makers facing problems with the censors, the judgment is a vindication of their efforts to uphold their freedom of expression. "It is a very strong judgment. This order vindicates our stand. It shows that in spite of deliberate efforts at suppressing critical voices, which often speak the truth, there is some manner of justice after all. But it shouldn't be this way. Freedom of speech and expression is our constitutional right," Anand said.

Filmed over a period of three years following the 1998 nuclear tests in India, War and Peace (Jung aur Aman in Hindi) is a three-hour documentary that explores the rise of Indian jingoism, militarism and the globalisation of the arms trade. It begins with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, a moment of violence that is deeply etched in the minds of almost every Indian, and follows the rise of fundamentalism and the spread of nationalist propaganda. The portrayal of the glaring sense of misplaced patriotism instigated by politicians is striking.

Anand Patwardhan journeyed through India, Pakistan, Japan and the United States exploring issues relating to the dangers of a nuclear war in the subcontinent. According to him, the idea of making the film stemmed spontaneously from the frustrations he felt after India and Pakistan "embarked on the path of nuclear madness". According to him, after the initial euphoria that was marked by jingoism, was filmed, several inter-related issues began cropping up and the scope of the film expanded. Issues concerning Adivasis who live near uranium mines or the health of workers who are exposed to unacceptable levels of radiation, also became the film's concern.

Through moving visuals and interviews, the film captures the tragic condition of people living near nuclear testing and mining sites. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the culpability of the U.S. in atom bombs being used against a nation that was about to surrender are retold. In spite of the sorrows depicted, the film conveys the messages of resistance and peace. "The film derives its power and emotional appeal from the growing movement for peace both in India and Pakistan," says the film-maker. Poignant moments are interspersed with some darkly amusing ones. He is well known for his masterful editing technique, involving the piecing together of comments and visuals, to create the desired impact.

Some critics point out that he could have done it differently. But Anand Patwardhan is not prepared to compromise. "We need to make a point and that's what scares them (the government)," he said. Undeniably, the film has raised the hackles of the establishment. For a year and a half, War and Peace was denied a certification of release by the CBFC; the board objected to several scenes, snatches of dialogue and shots. According to them, a law and order problem would arise if the film was screened. The CBFC said that several scenes violated the guidelines and that cuts and changes needed to be made before it could be given a release certificate. The certificate is required to screen a film in public and to enter it in film festivals abroad.

According to Anand, the film has not violated any of the guidelines. Citing law and order was just an excuse to prevent the film from being screened, he said. In fact, the film had had one public screening even before the CBFC raised objections. It was shown in February 2002 at the Mumbai International Film Festival, where it was adjudged the Best Film/Video of the festival, and won the International Jury Award. The documentary having received critical acclaim, Anand says he thought that the release certificate would be a mere formality. But that was just the beginning of a protracted battle with the CBFC. The organisers had taken permission from the police to show the film at a private function in Mumbai, but the board threatened action against the auditorium officials.

Initially the CBFC asked for six cuts to be made. Patwardhan refused. The film was then taken to a revising committee, which prescribed 21 cuts. Patwardhan appealed to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), which reduced the number of cuts needed to two, with one addition to be made. "We finally petitioned the High Court to remove all interventions," says Patwardhan.

Meanwhile, going against the FCAT's directive, the CBFC petitioned the High Court seeking to reimpose all the 21 cuts. According to Patwardhan, "the CBFC has shown a completely partisan attitude towards War and Peace. After the panellists saw the film, contrary to norms, the film-maker was repeatedly prevented from discussing the film with the panellists on the ground that there was no consensus."

He says that the 21 cuts demanded by the CBFC, which is currently headed by a former Bharatiya Janata Party legislator, did not reflect any lack of consensus but seemed to be driven by a political agenda. "Not only did the CBFC censor even the mildest criticism of the BJP, it single-mindedly stifled Dalit voices wherever they were raised," Patwardhan said. According to him, War and Peace has not been singled out for persecution; it was part of a larger agenda where any critical voice, particularly if it is against the government, is sought to be stifled.

Aakrosh, a 20-minute documentary on the carnage in Gujarat, has been denied a certificate of release (Frontline, April 25). The film, which is a narrative of what happened during the riots, does not have any scenes of violence. But the CBFC maintains that public screenings of the film will instigate trouble. Ramesh Pimple, the producer of Aakrosh believes that the government is trying to black out Gujarat from public memory. He feels that anybody who tries to document riots or communal issues objectively would be targeted. "Some of the cuts demanded of War and Peace, like removing visuals of the Prime Minister or the President who are giving speeches at public functions, are utterly ridiculous. Even news channels cover those events, says Ramesh Pimple.

In yet another instance, the moral police have targeted a film by Bishakha Datta on sex workers. Its release is being held up by the CBFC.

If the functioning of the CBFC is examined closely, it becomes apparent where the orders come from, says Patwardhan. The Central government appoints a panel of citizens from which four to seven members are chosen by the CBFC to view a particular film. More often than not, ideology seems to guide the choices. "The saffronisation of the CBFC is very clear, it is more than apparent from the nature of the cuts demanded in War and Peace. From the demand to delete the visuals of the murder of the Mahatma to that for the deletion of even the slightest criticism of the BJP, the CBFC has revealed its hand," says Patwardhan. He clarifies that he had no intention to target any particular political party. The events and moments captured in the film speak for themselves, he said.

Fortunately for Patwardhan and other artists facing official intolerance, the judiciary seems to have come to their aid. In its ruling the Mumbai High Court states: "It is only in a democratic form of government that the citizens have the right to express themselves fully and fearlessly as to what is their viewpoint towards the events which are taking place around. By suppressing a certain viewpoint, it is not only the propagator of the viewpoint who suffers but it is the society at large and equally the people in authority who suffer." The court said that although it wanted to award the costs of the case to the CBFC, it could not do so as the board was a quasi-judicial body.