Films for freedom

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

From Aakrosh, one of the films rejected by MIFF. -

From Aakrosh, one of the films rejected by MIFF. -

Covert censorship of "uncomfortable" films sparks a protest in Mumbai and leads to the birth of a parallel festival of documentary films.


THE right to freedom of expression is one of the best yardsticks to measure democracy with. It is enshrined as a fundamental right in Article 19 (a) of the Constitution. But the time has clearly come to remind both government and people that such a right not only exists but is essential to put into practice if India is to continue its democratic claims. In recent years, the state has not only imposed covert and overt censorship, but has also chosen to look the other way when hooligans burn books, destroy paintings, attack artists, tear down cinemas, rip apart ancient manuscripts and make a mockery of all constitutional safeguards.

With majority fundamentalism rising in the wake of a government that uses it to retain power, it is no accident that the official machinery of the state is ranged against the advocates of secularism, egalitarianism and social and gender justice. With the same state surrendering national sovereignty to multinational corporations and the "free market" resistance against militarism, rapacious and unsustainable "development" and the ruin of the country's natural and human resources is sought to be suppressed with equal vehemence. It is in this larger context that the current struggle of Indian documentary filmmakers must be seen.

In February 1990, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting gave the Films Division of India a fresh lease of life by asking it to run the first Bombay International Film Festival (BIFF). The success of this festival in showcasing documentaries of high quality led it to be sanctioned as a biannual event. It is important to remember the political ambience of the time. The Bharatiya Janata Party had only two seats in Parliament. The Babri Masjid was intact. The communal bloodbath of 1992-93 had not yet occurred. Those who proclaimed that India was a Hindu nation were not yet taken seriously.

Scenes from Anand Patwardhan's War and Peace.

Films that fought for secular values and for economic and social justice enjoyed a pride of place in the festival. BIFF became known nationally and internationally as an important event for filmmakers to converge. It became MIFF as Bombay changed to Mumbai. Within a decade the politics of the land and its whole ethos also began to change. But perhaps because MIFF was seen as a harmless forum to let filmmakers blow off steam in a contained space, it survived censorship for a long time. Almost all over the world festivals are run free of censorship and MIFF proudly wore its international tag right through the festival of 2002.

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, June 6, 2003). The judgment delivered by Justices H. Gokhale and Ranjana Desai bears quoting:

"Before we conclude, we would like to record the oft-stated proposition that an issue may be one but there are many facets of looking at it. It is quite possible that the persons in authority today may feel that what they see is the only correct facet of it though it may not be so. 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. This is because they fail to receive the counter-view and it may eventually lead to an immense damage to society due to erroneous decision at the hands of the persons in authority in the absence of the counter-view. That apart, the freedom of speech and expression is important not merely for the consequences that ensue in the absence thereof but since the negation of it runs as an anti-thesis to basic human values, instincts and creativity. It is high time that the persons in authority realise the significance of freedom of speech and expression rather than make and allow such attempts to stifle it."

It was a stinging rebuke. But the bureaucrats learned an entirely wrong lesson. Instead of the Censor Board becoming more liberal, it became more stringent and far-fetched. The makers of Aakrosh, a film that deals with the communal carnage in Gujarat, were told in writing that bygones should be bygones and that reminding people of riots and pogroms was counter-productive. In other words the state had decided that inconvenient histories must be deleted.

As MIFF 2004 approached, the government knew that many films on the carnage in Gujarat exposing the ruling party's complicity were in the making and could embarrass it on an international stage. Perhaps to circumvent this, an amazing new rule was introduced stipulating that all Indian films should have a censor certificate. Foreign films were exempt from this rule. Documentary filmmakers across the country were galvanised into action. Over 275 filmmakers exchanged ideas, drew up action plans, organised a Campaign Against Censorship (CAC) and threatened to boycott MIFF if the censor certificate requirement was not withdrawn. As a result of a united and popular campaign, the rules for MIFF were amended again and the censorship clause withdrawn.

The filmmakers were nevertheless apprehensive that there would be an attempt to introduce censorship through the backdoor, that is, by eliminating "uncomfortable" films from the festival through a manipulated selection. Their fears came true.

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.

Filmmakers faced a dilemma. While there was criticism about the functioning of MIFF from its inception, acts of omission and commission were tolerated by the filmmaking community because it tended to look upon the festival as an important space for the Indian documentary. However, this time the blatant attempt to stifle critical voices made it impossible to look the other way. Filmmakers decided to hold parallel screenings near the MIFF venue, showcasing the very films MIFF had rejected, so that the public could judge these films for themselves.

The campaign rose to a higher pitch. Surabhi Sharma, whose documentary Aamakar was selected to compete in MIFF, wrote to the authorities that she would withdraw her film from MIFF in solidarity with filmmakers whose work had been rejected unfairly. By the time MIFF began, 14 filmmakers had withdrawn their work and the head of the MIFF jury, Girish Karnad, stepped down in sympathy with the fight against censorship. Other jury members and filmmakers offered to do likewise and MIFF was in danger of being marred by dissent and disorder.

Members of the CAC, however, decided not to paralyse MIFF 2004 because it still has the potential of being an important festival for Indian and international documentaries, short and animation films. MIFF is run with public money and people have a right to demand that the best films in the land are screened without censorship. The filmmakers did not call for a boycott of MIFF, because despite a flawed selection process, some good films would be screened there. All that they demanded was dialogue, transparency and professionalism so that MIFF has a future that all can look forward to.

They decided that the best way to fight censorship was to screen the "rejected" films at a venue near MIFF. The films that were withdrawn from MIFF joined the screening list and a new festival VIKALP: Films for Freedom was born. Each filmmaker contributed Rs.1,000 and two friends put in Rs.10,000 each. With this shoestring budget, armed with Mini DV tapes and a video projector, they went in search of an appropriate hall near the MIFF venue. They found a perfect one in Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan, which houses the printing press of the Communist Party of India (CPI). The CPI's solidarity was unconditional and total. Its leaders did not ask for a penny for the hall. Once the party realised that the filmmakers were short of money, it allowed them to print their material free of cost from its press. The large hall posed a problem as it had terrible acoustics and a low ceiling. The organisers put thick curtains on the windows, did away with chairs, put mattresses on the floor and a shoe rack outside the hall. Volunteers poured in from all over the city and some arrived from across the country. Almost overnight, as if by miracle, a full-fledged, beautifully running people's film festival was under way.

Publicity for VIKALP was by word of mouth but, incredibly, the festival had a full house from day one. The festival opened with an excerpt from Sadaat Hasan Manto's "Safed Jhoot", an indictment of censorship and hypocrisy, performed by Jamil Khan, directed by Naseeruddin Shah and introduced by Ratna Pathak Shah. The spirit generated by the play was palpable and it did not get diminished for a moment throughout the day as exciting films and discussions followed each other without pause till nightfall.

The festival is a resounding success but our battle against the erosion of democratic rights cannot end here. Filmmakers' appeal is not to the filmmaking community alone. For an assault on freedom of expression does not affect filmmakers alone. It is an assault on democracy itself.

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