Censoring the 'senses': New targets, old, old methods

Posted on 26 June, 2017 by Team Wishberry

I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write: An excerpt from Rohith Vemula’s suicide note


The season of unnecessary, unimportant and most importantly, unintelligent bans is upon us once again! Recently the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting denied permission to International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, when it came to the screening of three films: In the Shade of Fallen Chinar, The Unbearable Being of Lightness and March March March. The films didn’t have a Censor certificate and the festival needed to procure permission from the ministry to screen them — the permissions never came on the grounds that the films, “threatened the integrity of the country”.

Following are the reasons why a film might not get the certification of exemption from the Ministry and thereby, not be screened at a film festival:

  • In exceptional cases, the Ministry of I&B will have the powers to reject, for reasons to be recorded in writing, the request for exemption to any film(s) if, in its opinion, it would impinge on the security or integrity of the country or affect law and order or affect relations with other countries.
  • In case of rejection, the Director of the Festival shall have the option to appeal to the next higher authority in the Ministry of I&B i.e., the Additional Secretary/Secretary, as the case may be, who shall dispose of the appeal within 15 days from the date of receipt in the Ministry.

You can read the Ministry’s complete policy for certification of films for film festivals here.

In order to get a better idea of the dates and how the events unfolded, here is a timeline, provided by Ramachandra PN, the director of The Unbearable Being of Lightness.

It almost feels pointless right now to try and understand the position of the government. How do you stop a film from being seen by the public at large in the day and age of the INTERNET? It is ridiculous to even assume that the State decided that denying permission to these films would ensure that they remain away from the public eye. Look at what happened — In The Shade of Fallen Chinar has been available online since 2016! Ramachandra PN made his film available for public viewing through Vimeo, post the I&B Ministry’s order. And on June 14, Kathu Lokase, the director of March March March put up her film on YouTube.

Now, if censorship is in no way stopping the screening of works of art, then why is it still being considered a tool to police ‘thought’, the workings of the ‘free’ mind, and most importantly ART?

All these films have something in common. They talk about the youth — the agitating youth: Kathu Lokase, Director, March March March
There has been a rising attack and aggression on college spaces: Shawn Sebastian, Co-Director, In the Shade of Fallen Chinar

In the Shade of Fallen Chinar beautifully chronicles the angst of Kashmir’s young minds — minds caught in turmoil, minds grappling with brutal everyday realities and finally, minds that seek to express themselves through art, whether it is in rap or through illustrations. “A guy like me in the 90s would have picked up a gun... A guy born 20 years later picked up a guitar... with the same ideology — to resist,” says Ali from Srinagar, in the film.

Similarly, The Unbearable Being of Lightness is on Rohith Vemula, the Dalit student who committed suicide following excessive harassment at the hands of his university, the police, as well as the government.

Finally, March March March is a chronicle of the events that unfolded on the JNU campus between March and September 2016.

Since when has resistance in the form of art become the handiwork of terrorism? There are umpteen examples in history and in today’s times as well to show that nation states not only respect differing opinions, but also allow them space to enunciate, to voice their dilemmas, to talk about their tragedies and their traumas — to exist. Case in point: Citizenfour, a documentary on whistle-blower Edward Snowden was awarded an Academy Award for being the best Documentary Feature. Snowden is no artist. His commentary on the US government’s culpability in mass surveillance was far from favourable. His side of the tale meant that the most powerful nation in the world was spying on its own people. However, the film wasn’t banned. The makers weren’t branded ‘anti-social elements’ and they were surely not put behind bars. Similarly, a documentary on Chelsea Manning, a former US Army intelligence analyst who leaked confidential material to Wikileaks, (Chelsea, a trans-woman, was sentenced to 35 years in prison under US’s Espionage Act but President Barack Obama commuted her sentence. She walked free on May 17, 2017), has found producers. Titled XY Chelsea, the film was presented at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival.


We were promoting a group of artists who support the idea of peace... of peace and dialogue in the valley: Shawn


Public sphere as a space for various voices to come together and hold dialogue is an idea that is as old as ‘Adam and Eve’! Some of the most crucial and pivotal moments in history have been possible because of the existence of this public sphere. Take our very own independence for example! Yes, there was active resistance, but there were also associations such as The Progressive Writers Movement and the Indian People’s Theatre Association that were dedicated to spreading awareness about social issues with the aim of national integration!

Sample this: In 1947, during the interim government when Jawaharlal Nehru was appointed vice president, some IPTA branches were harassed by government bans which censored certain plays and called for the arrest of their performers. I had recently been nominated vice president of IPTA and wrote a most foolishly presumptuous letter to Pandit, “I am writing to you as one vice president to another"... describing the harassment and requesting his mediation. Just imagine the cheek! He wrote back in a most considerate manner, saying he was not aware of the harassment and would see what could be done about it. And sure enough, the aggravation stopped after some time: Zohra Sehgal in Theatre and Activism in the 1940s.


Whoever speaks or writes against the government is being branded anti-Indian. This shows that the government is frightened to handle emerging young social activists: Divya Bharathi, Director, Kakkoos

This is not just about 3 films getting banned. Recently, filmmaker Divya Bharathi put up her film on manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu online. She had to do it after repeated attempts at screenings were thwarted, when screenings that did take place were disrupted and finally, when Divya ran into heavy losses trying to put out the film in DVD form. Kakkoos is a very difficult film to stomach. It chronicles an evil practice that continues unabated, looking law squarely in the eye and defying it. It is shameful that we live in the 21st century and we continue to let it happen. Kakkoos is a scathing commentary on the State, and how it continues to ignore the misfortunes of its own people.


Conflict here, it has been a drag... a stretch for 26 years and we have realized that nothing can happen abruptly. We cannot pick up a gun and expect results. The youth here is into escapism. We are not escaping the reality; we are escaping the harshness that the conflict has put on us: In the Shade of Fallen Chinar


Still from In the Shade of Fallen Chinar. Picture courtesy Indian Express

Whether it is a film on Kashmiri students at university rapping about conflict or a film on the JNU fracas from last year when students were charged with sedition, or a film on the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 (Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai), without dissent there is no democracy. Past governments had recognized that, which is why a film such as Anand Patwardhan’s Raam Ke Naam was awarded a U-certificate, it won a National Award and India’s public broadcaster, Doordarshan, screened it.


Filmmakers should boycott all festivals that demand censor certificates. They can run parallel festivals like we all did in 2004. As a result of our stand the Mumbai International Film Festival finally withdrew their censorship demand. The demand for censorship at film festivals is ridiculous. Nowhere in the world except in banana republics is it followed. Sorry arnab, the pun was intended: Anand Patwardhan
Film festivals offer a certain legitimacy to films... there are select audiences that come across these films only at festivals... these festivals offer a ready audience for films... an enthusiastic audience of 500 odd people... let’s not underestimate the move: Nakul Sawhney, Director, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai

State censorship is not a new phenomenon. Time itself is witness to the fact that even the most vibrant democracies have interfered with the creative arts. However, the intensity with which government machineries seem to be cracking the whip on anything that doesn’t toe the line, is a sign of peril: think Gajendra Chauhan and FTII, think JNU and the arrests, think Kirori Mal College and ABVP-led Delhi University Students Union stopping the screening of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, think of a professor of Delhi University get thrashed in a reputed college campus...


This is a symbolic protest, more than anything. Since the ban, the film has garnered immense viewership. But, I still think we should fight it because we have been denied dialogue with our intended audience: Shawn

It is a travesty to see voices of dissent being quelled in a nation that claims to be truly diverse. What is disheartening to witness is the fact that not only physical spaces; minds are being policed as well. There is an intellectual crackdown going on that wants to suppress any ideology or process of thought that questions the State’s absolute authority. It is sad to see that art today, is being sacrificed at the altar of maintaining control, of keeping power. One agrees that all of the above films are difficult to watch. All of them point towards the culpability of the State in upholding a rotten hierarchy and lust for power that can only end in tragedy. And that is exactly why these films are important — they open the space for dialogue, because long gone are the days when a powerful State could simply squash voices of dissent.

However, not all is lost. There is also a saying that art thrives the most in times of conflict. We have seen cinema of resistance grow by leaps and bounds in the past. Whether it was Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinema that portrayed rampant oppression in French society, or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s scathing Salo or 120 days of Sodom that was a brutal commentary on Italian fascism led by Mussolini, Titicut Follies... cinema has always remained a powerful tool. Back home, in the not too distant past, we have had filmmakers portray the decay in Indian society through documentaries and even fiction. Therefore, one hopes that despite the shackles, cinema will continue to thrive and will continue to portray uncomfortable truths.


Being here and experiencing the turmoil, the happiness, the change of weather... the wind! It was hot, but at 4 it became cold... you have hard times here but there is also remedy that this place gives you: In the Shade of Fallen Chinar


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