Censoring freedom

Published : Aug 27, 2004 00:00 IST

The methods used to prevent a festival of documentary films in Bangalore demonstrate once again the CBFC's determination to keep films with strong political messages out of the public domain.

in BangaloreScenes from Final Solution.

THE contrast could not be more striking. While Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's powerful expose of the American establishment's hypocrisy in its so-called `War against Terrorism' runs to packed houses in the United States and even promises to influence voting patterns in the November presidential elections, in India, archaic censorship laws keep documentary films with strong political messages firmly out of the public domain.

The documentary film has become an authoritative medium of social commentary and truth telling the world over and India is no exception to this trend. Yet, Indian officialdom continues to suppress films that deal boldly with the issues of our times. This has triggered an angry response from the dominant segment of Indian filmmakers determined to defend their right to the freedom of expression.

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) was reconstituted by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government into a body that, like the medieval Inquisition, appears to have set for itself the task of dealing with heresy. Despite the regime change, the CBFC continues to harass independent documentary filmmakers who have made films on the political message and practice of the Hindu Right.

The Board recently used the sword of censorship against documentary filmmakers when it insisted that all the Indian documentaries to be screened at the 2004 Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) must be certified by it. In response filmmakers came together under the banner of the Campaign Against Censorship and forced the CBFC to rescind the order. They set up Vikalp, an alternative platform for films. Vikalp screened all films, certified and uncertified, at a venue opposite the MIFF's (Frontline, February 27).

TWO recent actions by the CBFC are illustrative of its continued determination to prevent the screening and dissemination of certain kinds of political documentaries. On July 26 a five-member CBFC Preview Committee refused certification to Rakesh Sharma's Final Solution. The documentary, a searing account of religious hatred and social polarisation that led to the 2002 Gujarat riots, has won several international awards. The second instance was the concerted attempt by members of the film certification committee attached to the CBFC's Bangalore regional office to prevent a documentary film festival, "Films for Freedom", from being held in the city between July 29 and August 1. The organisers of the festival had a harrowing experience: besides the flurry of police complaints filed against them by the CBFC regional board members, they were subjected to verbal threats and physical intimidation. They had taken the same set of 29 films to other parts of the country, including Mumbai and Ahmedabad, without a hitch.

Final Solution was refused certification under Section 5B(1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952. In its official communication to Rakesh Sharma, the CBFC stated that the film "promotes communal disharmony among Hindu and Muslim groups and presents the picture of Gujarat riots in a way that it may arouse the communal feelings and clashes among Hindu Muslim groups" (sic). The letter went on to say that the film "attacks on the basic concept of our Republic, that is, National Integrity and Unity", and that "certain dialogues involve defamation of individuals or body of individuals". Section 5B(1) of the Act gives the CBFC the power to deny certification if a film is, amongst other things, "against the sovereignty and integrity of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence". In the eyes of the CBFC, the film was apparently guilty of all that and much more.

"The decision of the Censor Board violates the freedom of expression, which is guaranteed in the Constitution, as well as the right to information," Rakesh Sharma told Frontline. "The same Board has allowed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to circulate several hundred thousand copies of the film Ramsevak Amar Raho (Long live the Ramsevak), and to a CD by the Gujarat government called Two Minutes to Truth, which was circulated inside the weekly news magazine India Today in 2002. There appear to be two sets of rules for an independent filmmaker like me and an organisation like the VHP."

In a letter to the CBFC Chairman Anupam Kher, Rakesh Sharma has called the preview that was conducted on July 26 a "charade". He first submitted the documentary for certification in February 2004. He alleges that the Board raised a host of frivolous, technical issues in order to delay holding a preview, including a query on how he got Customs clearance to take his film abroad, an issue that does not come within the purview of the Board at all. The preview was finally fixed on a date that made it impossible for him to attend as he was in Bangalore to screen his film. "I was informed on a Friday about a Monday screening," he said. He was therefore denied an opportunity to present an oral submission before the committee. In his letter to Anupam Kher, Rakesh Sharma says that according to his assistants who maintained a logbook, the preview committee members were in the screening room from 2.30 p.m. to 5.25 p.m., with many of them taking frequent breaks from the preview room. He alleges that the committee came to its decision without even watching the full length of the film, which runs for three-and-a-half hours. He now plans to take legal action against the Board's decision.

Anand Patwardhan's War and Peace and Ramesh Pimple's Aakrosh were similarly denied certification by the CBFC. They approached the High Court of Mumbai and were granted relief against the Board's rulings. Sharma plans to do the same.

THE partially successful attempt by the Bangalore regional office of the CBFC to stop the "Films for Freedom" festival was of a piece with what was being enacted at the same time in Mumbai. The festival was organised by a group of independent documentary filmmakers along with Pedestrian Pictures, a media activist group; the Alternative Law Forum, a legal rights organisation; Samvada, a youth organisation; and Collective Chaos, a film society. The 29 films to be screened at the festival included certified and uncertified documentary films. Although the Cinematograph Act says that all films that are screened publicly require certification, the practice has been that for film festivals the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting grants blanket exemptions from certification.

The organisers were, therefore, alarmed at the strong-arm methods used to prevent the screening of the films. Lawrence Liang of the Alternative Law Forum told Frontline: "Even as the chairman of the regional office of the CBFC assured us on the 26th that we would face no problems with the festival, we later discovered that he had already filed a police complaint against us on the 24th with the Deputy Commissioner, Crime Branch, on the basis of a Times of India report, which said that we would be screening uncensored films, and should therefore be stopped from doing so." Another police complaint filed in the Jayanagar Police Station by S. Jagannath, B.N. Raghavendra and N. Dakshinamurthy, directed the police to stop the screening of uncensored films. The three persons, who claimed that they were members of the advisory panel of the regional censor board, also telephoned the manager of the JSS Auditorium in Jayanagar where the films were to be screened and told him to call off the screening or face the consequences.

Apprehending trouble, the JSS auditorium management told the organisers that they would give permission for screening only those films that had censor certificates. Instead of Final Solution, the organisers opened the festival with Words on Water. "The three advisory panel members, however, arrived with a group of their supports," recalled Liang. "They demanded entry and said they had the right to search the premises and seize copies of film, citing Section 37 of the Cinematograph Certification Rules. These rules actually only allow them to ask the management of the hall for the best seats!" he said. The certified films were screened under police protection, while the 11 uncertified films in the festival were later shown at a private screening held by invitation only.

Dakshinamurthy denied that the advisory committee members had caused any trouble in the auditorium. "In fact, the police took us to the police station," he said. Claiming that he has nothing to do with the Hindu Jagaran Manch (as alleged by the organisers), he said that he was a "social worker" working with an organisation called the "Bangalore Vedike" and had been on the advisory panel for four years. "I have not seen the films but I know that there is objectionable material in some of them on Godhra and all that."

A. Chandrashekhar, Regional Officer of CBFC's Bangalore division, justifies the action taken by his office to stop the festival on legal grounds. "It is only the Central government that can grant exemption under Section 9 of the Cinematograph Act to a film from having a censor certificate," he told Frontline. "No producer of a film can assume such exemption. Since this was not the case in the present instance, the matter was brought to the notice of the State police, who only have the authority to take appropriate action in case any provisions of the Act are violated." He argued that it is the CBFC's role to bring any instance of such violation to the notice of the police "and that was exactly what was done by the CBFC in the present case". There was no precedent, he said, of organisers of a film festival making a "public announcement of their intention to screen in public uncensored films in violation of the law of the land". As for the composition of the Advisory Committee and the selection criteria, the Central government, he said, "constitutes the panel by drawing people from different walks of life". Chandrashekhar said he was not aware of the political affiliations of any of the members of the committee.

"Never in the 30 years of the film festival movement in Karnataka has the CBFC used an executive order to prevent the screening of films," documentary filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj told Frontline. "Contravention of the Act is a cognizable non-bailable offence with imprisonment up to three years, or with a fine of Rs.1 lakh or both," she said. "Films for Freedom" moves on to Chennai where screenings will take place at the Asian College of Journalism. For the Campaign Against Censorship, the Bangalore episode only reaffirms its commitment to continue its struggle against the many forms of censorship and control of documentary films.

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