Censors continue to stifle Indian filmmaking

Film censor laws may no longer be called so officially, but they continue to stifle the creativity of Indian filmmakers and suppress the non-conformism of documentary makers.

India no longer has a 'censor board' but a Central Board of Film Certification. But its approval for publicly screening films is as mandatory as before and, if you are running off the beaten track, as tough to get as ever.

Feature and non-feature filmmakers regularly run into censorship trouble, sometimes for the most unlikely of reasons.

Producer-director-scriptwriter Manu Rewal's low-budget "Chai Pani Etc", now included for screening at the 35th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) here, ran into trouble for odd reasons.

A film on Jayaprakash Narayan was not allowed to be screened on Doordarshan without cuts.

The army has objected to its depiction in films.

Award-winning filmmaker Anand Patwardhan's "War and Peace" on the nuclearisation of South Asia, now being screened at the IFFI, was considered "subversive" by the censor board.

Patwardhan said in an interview with the National Film Development Council's journal Cinema In India: "A film considered subversive by the censor board last year won the national award for best non-fiction film this year."

Patwardhan was asked to make 21 cuts in "War and Peace", which he refused.

The censors did not want him to say that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse or criticise Hindutva or the BJP or show footage of the Tehelka defence deals scam, he said.

"They didn't even want speeches by their own politicians because these politicians sounded foolish or opportunistic," Patwardhan said.

Some censorship laws go back to colonial times and filmmakers have been campaigning to have them changed.

Films For Freedom calls itself an "action platform" of more than 300 Indian documentary makers who came together in August 2003 to work on "issues of free speech", screen documentaries and hold discussions on the "form, politics and aesthetics" of documentaries.

Earlier this year, a section of filmmakers walked out of the Maharastra International Film Festival in Mumbai and launched 'Vikalp' (or 'Alternative'), an independent platform protesting censorship.

In Delhi, a network called Campaign Against Censorship has been active through the Internet.

Filmmakers have accused the government-appointed board of rejecting films that depict stark social or political realities. 'Alternate' film festivals have also been held in some cities.

But official pressure is not the only concern.

Rising commercialism gets TV and movies "increasingly withdrawn into an artificial world of make-believe and propaganda", they say. It is now left to documentary filmmakers to "tell the other stories".

Filmmakers have also been campaigning for the inclusion of video for national awards to ensure that smaller players are not left out.

"A lot of the interesting, path-breaking work being produced today is on video," argue K.P. Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. All major film festivals around the world also include video, they say.

Prohibitive costs of transferring to film format cut out a large number of documentary filmmakers, they argue.

Some films facing censor trouble include those dealing with the Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute and Rakesh Sharma's award-winning "Final Solution" on Gujarat violence.

Speaking here earlier this week, Minister for Information and Broadcasting and Culture S. Jaipal Reddy promised to re-examine censorship rules under a new panel.

"I'm not for a repressive policy, but we also need to consider the vast diversity of India and the sensitivities of a developing country. We cannot have the norms of advanced countries," Reddy said.

But a diverse country like India, which prides itself in its democratic values, can make do with not-so-sharp scissors when it comes to candid filmmaking.