“How can you deny an objective fact?”

Print edition : August 18, 2017
Interview with Suman Ghosh, the maker of the documentary on Amartya Sen.

THE release of the much-awaited documentary on the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen by the National Award-winning film-maker Suman Ghosh has met a hurdle, with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) asking for the deletion of the words “Gujarat”, “Hindu”, “Hindutva” and “cow”’ from the documentary. Ghosh, who is also a professor of economics at Florida Atlantic University, has refused to comply with the board’s directive and is now gearing up for a long-drawn battle with the establishment. In an exclusive interview to Frontline, he talks about the making of the documentary, which he began in 2002, and his run-in with the CBFC. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that this film would be controversial”, he said. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about this documentary on Amartya Sen.

I started making this documentary in 2002, and in early 2017, I shot more footage with Amartya Sen and Kaushik Basu in Santiniketan. Even though I had made the film in 2002, I realised the importance of a person like Amartya Sen is much more now in the changed world scenario. So I shot some new footage and re-edited the entire thing and wanted to release it as The Argumentative Indian.

The documentary focusses on his life and work, and through them presents the person or the human being Amartya Sen. You see, the two are completely intertwined and that is what I wanted to bring out in the film.

Structurally, I did not want to make a documentary with the typical voice-over, etc. So I thought, how about an “adda” [a uniquely Bengali term for unstructured, enlightened discussions] rather than a conversation between Kaushik Basu and Amartya Sen? Kaushik Basu was his student and is very close to him. I weave in visuals and other interviews around that “adda”. The entire documentary is, in fact, structured around it.

Did you expect this kind of censorship from the CBFC?

Not at all. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that this film would be controversial. I was really taken aback when I heard from the CBFC that those words were sensitive or controversial.

Did the board tell you what exactly they found controversial in those words?

I inquired about their objection to the word “Gujarat”. The riot that took place in Gujarat is an objective fact, so how can you deny an objective fact? I told them that the Gujarat riot did not happen anywhere else, but still they thought that it was perhaps targeting a particular State. It was the same case with the other words as well. Take, for instance, the word “cow”; it is a fact that there are lots of discussions going on about the issue of cow slaughter. This, again, is an undeniable fact in the country, and Amartya Sen has definite views on the issue. That is why I decided not to bleep out any of those words. I told the CBFC people when I met them that I was not going to compromise on a single word. It would be an insult to Professor Amartya Sen.

Did they specify what their problem was with those words?

There is a set of censor guidelines that has been operational for more than half a century. But to me, it is very subjective how you interpret [on the basis of these guidelines]; any objective fact can be interpreted as an insult to the state or a religion or a caste. They said they were just following the guidelines. Honestly, a clear explanation was not given to me.

Later, I got a letter from the CBFC which said that the board had come to the conclusion that the film was suitable for unrestricted public exhibition, provided I carried out the modifications that they had listed. Along with the four words I had mentioned, they wanted me to mute the words “In India”, uttered by Sugata Bose (Trinamool Congress MP), and the words “used” and “these days”, uttered by Amartya Sen. I forget in what context those last two words were used.

Is there an excessive reference to the words “Hindu”, “Hindutva”, “cow” and “Gujarat” in the documentary that the CBFC felt they needed to intervene?

Not really. For example, Amartya Sen talked about the country sometimes being interpreted in narrow terms like “Hindu India”, which is, again, a fact. Now, you can oppose it or disagree with it, but the fact is that the country is being interpreted as “Hindu India” by certain groups.

Regarding the word “Gujarat”, just after the riots in 2002, Amartya Sen, in one of his lectures in Cornell University, was talking about the importance of a viable political opposition in any country. In that context, he was talking about the “criminality” of the government in Gujarat. But what surprised me was the CBFC asking me to delete the word “Gujarat” rather than “criminality”.

They could have asked me to delete that whole sentence, but they asked me to remove only “Gujarat”. I didn’t really understand the logic of that, and I also found it rather ad hoc. He had openly talked about this in interviews on television before, but for some reason, I was not allowed to show it in the film.

Do you think the CBFC would have behaved in a similar manner if it were a documentary on anyone other than Amartya Sen?

I am sure it has something to do with that, given the history between Professor Sen and the current government. But I cannot say if they would have been so vigilant in the case of others.

What is your next move?

I am told there is a process to be followed here. Because of the schedule of my current project, which is being shot now, I have not had the time to go through the process that I have to follow. First, I have to respond to their letter, in which I will have to say that I do not accept their terms; and then I think the matter will go to a tribunal. Whatever it is, I will contest [the board’s demands] and see how far I can go.

The film was supposed to be shown to the public on July 14. What about putting it up on the Internet?

In any case, I would have put it up on the Net. I planned to put it up at the end of this year, after a limited release. I had organised several screenings earlier—it was shown at the New York Indian Film Festival in May, and in June it was shown at the London Indian Festival, the venue of which was the London School of Economics.

We have some other screenings lined up. Unfortunately, I cannot show it in India or send it for any of the national awards but in December I will release the film online.

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