Freedom of Expression and the Politics of Art
Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali was panned at home for purveying “negative” images
of Indian poverty. It went on to win acclaim at Cannes and the rest is history.
One could hope the same happy denouement would unfold for Rakesh Sharma’s
Final Solution which was unceremoniously rejected (read censored) by the selection
committee of the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) for Documentaries,
Shorts and Animation Films, only to win two prestigious awards at the Berlin
International Film Festival.
But the hope would be belied. What happens to the cinema after all is not
divorced from what happens to society as a whole. Today the moral police is
out on the prowl looking for the “enemy within”. Some wield the
big stick of the State and others the narrow-minded, self-righteousness of
the super “patriot”. Some dictate from the corridors of power what
is right and wrong, what is “culture” and what is obscenity, what
is “Indian” and what is “Western”, what is history
and what is myth. Others whose buying power allows them only the tiniest crumbs
of the promised consumer cornucopia are empowered by a State that looks the
other way when the faithful begin to riot and loot. They form themselves into
mobs that destroy paintings, threaten artists, tear down museums, shred ancient
manuscripts, all in the name of God and the holy Motherland.
So for political documentaries that take on the State and religious fundamentalists,
there is little hope of official sanction and recognition. Indeed whatever
space these films wrest for themselves must be jealously guarded and cautiously
expanded. Why speak only of art? Everywhere the democratic space is shrinking.
As election after blood-soaked, manipulated and corrupted election brings the
far-right ever closer to total control, we have to wake up and rouse ourselves
to stand up and be counted in defence of our Constitution and our right to
live as a humane people. As Constitutions go, ours must rank as one of the
best. It came as a culmination of the freedom struggle, it was drafted by a
team led by Dr. Ambedkar, one of the greatest thinkers and leaders of our time
and a champion of the most oppressed sections of our society and it enshrines
the values of a secular democracy that has egalitarianism as a core ideal.
In it the Right to Freedom of Expression is guaranteed as a fundamental right.
Small wonder then that the ruling ideology of India today as openly stated
its intention to amend the Constitution once it has sufficient numbers to do
It is in this larger context that recent events must be viewed. Last year
faced with the fact that many Indian documentary films that questioned the
socio-political policies of the State and criticized the rising tide of religious
hatred had won prizes and attracted world-wide attention, the Ministry of Information
and Broadcasting took the extra-ordinary measure of imposing a new rule that
demanded that all Indian films be censored prior to entry into MIFF 2004 while
foreign films remained exempt.
Documentary filmmakers across the country were galvanized into action. Over
275 filmmakers exchanged ideas and action plans, formed a Campaign Against
Censorship at MIFF and threatened to boycott MIFF altogether if the censor
certificate requirement was not removed. As a result of a united and popular
campaign, the rules for MIFF were amended and the censorship clause withdrawn.
There nevertheless was an apprehension that there would be an attempt to introduce
censorship through the backdoor - ie - by eliminating “uncomfortable” films
from the festival through a manipulated selection process. These fears came
true. MIFF 2004 rejected some thirty of the most outstanding new Indian films
made on a range of themes - primarily political. Amongst the reject films was
Rakesh Sharma’s meticulously documented and searing Final Solution on
State complicity in the Gujarat massacres and Shubhradeep Chakravarty’s
Godhra Tak a film that questioned the official version of how the fire began
that burned 59 Hindus to death and led to the large scale revenge killings
of Muslims. Also rejected was Sanjay Kak’s Words on Water a film that
documents the immense courage of the Narmada Bachao Andolan that fights for
those displaced by gigantic dams on the river Narmada – dams that history
will surely judge and remember as monuments to man’s greed and folly.
Amar Kanwar’s Night of Prophesy a moving tribute to the protest culture
of the marginalized met the same fate. The censor’s unofficial axe did
not fall only on the most hard-hitting of political films. Also rejected were
more personal and reflective films like Vasudha Joshi’s Girl Song, positive
and constructive films like Anjali and Jayashankar’s Naata and observational
films like Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s Mat. These films must have paid the price
for the fact that despite a softer tone, their critique of the rising tide
of religious fundamentalism remains unmistakable. Communalism was not the only
issue the censors found to be unpalatable. Sex workers who speak up for themselves
without apology (Shohini Ghosh’s Tales of the Night Fairies, Bisakha
Dutta’s In the Flesh ) met the same fate. The reason for excluding Rahul
Roy’s City Beautiful a film that painstakingly observes the deteriorating
conditions of two working class families in New Delhi was perhaps best revealed
in the statement of one of the selection committee members: “Why should
we show films that tarnish the image of India?”
We decided that the best way to fight censorship was to screen the “rejected” films
at a venue near MIFF so that the public could decide for themselves. By this
time 14 filmmakers whose films had been selected by MIFF decided to withdraw
from MIFF in protest against censorship. The films that were withdrawn from
MIFF joined the screening list and a new festival VIKALP: Films for Freedom
was born. Each filmmaker pooled in Rs 1000, two friends put in Rs.10,000 each
and with this shoestring budget, armed with Mini DV tapes and a video projector
we went in search of an appropriate hall near the MIFF venue. We found the
perfect one. Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan houses the printing press of the Communist
Party of India. Their solidarity was unconditional and total. They did not
ask for a penny for the hall and all our printing became free once they realized
that we really had no budget. Of course their large hall posed a problem as
it had terrible acoustics and a low ceiling. We 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 peoples film festival was underway.
Publicity for VIKALP was by word of mouth but incredibly, we had a full house
from day one and people had to be turned away 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 electricity 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.
Spokespersons at MIFF, like their counterparts in the Central Board of Film
Certification (the Censor Board) have always done, continued to deny that any
political censorship had occurred and claimed that all films had been rejected
on merit alone. Notions of “art” are often brought in to defend
existing ideologies. It is instructive to note that the filmmaker that MIFF
chose to honour this year was Leni Riefenstahl, the creator of Hiltler’s
best known propaganda films. MIFF opened their festival with her salute to
Nazi supremacy The Triumph of the Will (1936). At the same time MIFF rejected
Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution a film whose subject matter and title
is a clear warning that fascist ideas are rampant in our country and history
has begun to repeat itself.
Selection committees and juries may not realize the choices they have made.
People inevitably bring their world-view and their politics to the table, sometimes
disguised from their colleagues and sometimes even from themselves, disguised
all too often, as notions of “art”.
Anand Patwardhan, The Hindustan Times