Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

Official Arbiters

In an attempt to ‘clean up’ or ‘maintain law and order’, governments across Southasia are cracking down on films. Because of their mass appeal and easy accessibility, feature films have been bearing the brunt of this censorship, while such stringent standards are not generally applied to documentary films, which have thus far not been as accessible to the mass public. But that will not last for long. Documentaries must be removed from within the power of official censorship regimes before the inevitable crackdowns begin. Today, Southasian docu-makers are asking that the rules that apply to them be different from the ones for feature films. More importantly, they propose that the power of censor boards to cut their work be taken away – if such bodies must exist, critics suggest, they should function more as forums to grant certification.

Certainly not all films in Southasia have slipped under the censor’s nose, a fact that only strengthens critics’ concerns. After the 2002 Gujarat carnage, filmmaker Rakesh Sharma arrived in Gujarat and started talking to victims and eyewitnesses of the violence that followed the train burning incident in Godhra. For over a year, he interviewed people from both the Hindu and Muslim communities about the events. The result was his 2003 documentary Final Solution, a graphic portrayal of hate politics investigating the aftermath of the anti-Muslim carnage. The film also criticised Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for not doing anything to stop the violence, accusing him of inciting communal hatred. When the feature-length documentary was ready for exhibition, India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) banned it. According to the body, the film would promote communal disharmony among Hindus and Muslims, by presenting the violence in Gujarat in a manner likely to arouse clashes. “State security is jeopardised and public order is endangered if this film is shown,” said the CBFC, refusing to certify the work under India’s Cinematography Act of 1952. “When it is judged in its entirety from the point of view of its overall impact, it is not advisable to be exhibited.”

Protesting the ban, Sharma distributed 10,000 free copies in India through a ‘get-a-free-copy-only-if-you-promise-to-make-five-pirate-copies’ campaign. Subscribers of various journals got free copies with their new issue, and ‘protest screenings’ were held all over the country. Indian filmmakers came together in support, audiences sent letters of protest directly to the Information Ministry in New Delhi, and an online petition was circulated. None of this, however, had the desired effect of getting the ban lifted. Indeed, at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) in 2004, the Indian government introduced a new clause that required all Indian films to obtain a censorship certificate. Foreign films were exempt. Finally, when 257 filmmakers united and agreed to boycott the event, the clause was withdrawn.

Yet filmmakers later said that the MIFF selection committee was still deliberately rejecting films that deal with issues of communalism, sexuality, gender, caste and even environment. Final Solution was one of the rejected entries. Directors whose films were selected subsequently withdrew their entries; one jury member stepped down in support; and filmmakers pooled their resources and organised a screening of MIFF ‘rejected’ films in Bombay under the banner ‘Vikalp: Films for Freedom’. Final Solution went on to win awards and special mentions at the Berlin International Film Festival, Munich DOK.FEST, Film South Asia ’05 and, ironically, was even included in India’s National Film Awards in 2007.

Sharma is of course not the only filmmaker to have faced censorship by Indian authorities. There is a history thereof, and veteran documentary filmmaker and activist Anand Patwardhan’s tussle with censors is likewise well known. His 1985 film Bombay: Our City, on the daily battles for survival of Bombay’s slum-dwellers, was shown on television only after a four-year-long court battle. The film was initially rejected by Doordarshan as ‘unsuitable for telecast’. Similarly, his Father, Son and Holy War (1995), on the relationship between religion, violence and masculinity, was only aired on national television in 2006 after an eight-year legal battle; finally, the Supreme Court ordered Doordarshan to air the film with no cuts, which the CBFC had asked for on the ground that the film disturbs ‘law and order’. Meanwhile, the never-say-die director went on to make War and Peace (2002), on the repercussions of going nuclear, made after the Indian test in Pokhran in 1998. For that film, the CBFC refused certification unless Patwardhan made 21 cuts. He dragged the CBFC to court and, after two years, won the right to screen the film without a single cut. It was released commercially in multiplexes in 2005 and aired on Doordarshan in 2006.

Leaning to leniency
Today, all films in India – documentaries, features and related ads – must be sent to the CBFC for review before exhibition, sale, distribution or preview. The Board is not self-regulated by the industry, but run and controlled by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, with 50 percent of its national and regional members being political appointees. For some time, Indian filmmakers and activists have argued that India’s Cinematography Act of 1952, under which the CBFC functions, is archaic. Given that the mushrooming of TV channels and Internet accessibility has led to greater ‘visual literacy’ in the country, they argue, it is naïve of the government to treat the audience as gullible, fearing that moving images on film will somehow negatively influence citizens. The argument is that slashing footage is not going to curb hate speech, pornography, obscenity or deter threats to national security.

And indeed, reams of footage are aired on Indian news channels every day without having to gain the approval of the CBFC. Indian documentary filmmakers argue that non-fiction films are merely longer and more in-depth versions of the news features, and consequently should also be allowed on air without official interference. In such a scenario, they would be brought under the purview of India’s Press Council, just as the news features are. In addition, they propose that the Board stick to rating films according to content rather than censoring them. While Indian filmmakers are frustrated with the role played by the CBFC, they believe that the Board has become more liberal regarding censorship of sexual content. Indeed, Sharmila Tagore, the former actress and the current CBFC chairperson, has stated that the Board should be working more as a body that classifies films and distributes certification. In the last few years, several Bollywood films have passed with minimal or no cuts, including Dev D (with sexual content), Omkara (strong language) and even Ghajini, with many violent scenes.

Filmmakers also admit that while progress has been slow, the Board too is showing leniency toward documentary films. Just one example is Rajesh S Jala’s Children of the Pyre, which revolves around the lives of seven young boys who make a livelihood performing cremations at the Manikarnika Ghat in Benaras. The boys steal shrouds from the bodies, sleep on the cremation grounds close to the dead bodies, and smoke marijuana to escape their nightmares. Regular shots of corpses, candid interviews with the boys and the use of abusive language are the film’s leitmotifs. When the work reached the CBFC, it was referred to a higher committee and Jala was invited to explain his intentions. The film was passed without a single cut, though with an above-18 adult certification. “I believe that the committee was generous in understanding the nuances of the film,” says Jala.

While the Board does seem to be becoming increasingly liberal, films making strong political statements still have a hard time seeing the light of the day. State censorship of the press or films continues to depend on who is in power in the government, and any liberalism could well be momentary. And the powers-that-be can always ban films awaiting review by claiming that they incite violence, attack national sovereignty or go against ‘family values’. Sharma’s film was critical of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, and the ban on Final Solution was finally lifted when the BJP government was no longer in power at the centre. In 2008, Shubhradeep Chakravorty’s film Encountered on Saffron Agenda?, an investigative account of the state-sanctioned killing of four individuals for an alleged attempt to assassinate Modi, was prevented from being screened in Jaipur and Bhopal by members of the Hindu fundamentalist Bajrang Dal. Since then, the director has been unable to screen the film anywhere in India. The government may not have formally banned it, but theatres have refused to screen this and other controversial films due to fear of vandalism by enraged groups. Exactly this scenario played out with the feature film Parzania, in 2007. The story of a family searching for their son who had vanished following the Gujarat riots, theatre owners throughout India refused to screen it following alleged threats from organisations close to the BJP.

Much sex?
As Indian filmmakers battled the CBFC, in the early 1990s Nepal was slowly becoming the venue for films in the region. With an increase in the number of film festivals taking place, many controversial films, which could not be shown in their country of production, were screened in Nepal, which has subsequently been considered something of a threshold for the documentary revolution. Fifteen years ago, when the Himalayan Film Festival first opened in Kathmandu, few considered a boom in documentary-making to be brewing in the country. Although documentaries started as a tool of ‘development propaganda’ in Nepal, many filmmakers have since moved away decisively from that genre. For instance, during the decade of ‘people’s war’, Dhruba Basnet filmed in the hinterlands, where very few dared to go. His The Killing Terraces (2001) brought images of the insurgency closer to audiences in the urban areas and abroad, who until then only heard or read about the fighting. A number of activist war films followed, including Schools in the Crossfire, The Living of Jogimara and Six ‘Stories’ – each of which were shown openly, in commercial film theatres and film clubs, without interference from the state between 2002 and 2004.

Under existing law, fiction and non-fiction films are both subject to pre-censorship in Nepal. The process is an arduous one. First, both story and script have to be approved, followed by the long process of registering the project with the Film Censor Board, which finally recommends it to a nine-member committee at the Ministry of Information and Communications. The rules apply equally to fiction films and to documentaries. Yet while feature films, which have to premiere in movie theatres, cannot proceed without the certification of the Censor Board, very few non-fiction filmmakers actually adhere to the censorship strictures. Indeed – and this is the positive aspect – with no filmmaker having yet been held accountable for going against the regulation, there is little incentive to comply. “In theory, the laws on censorship in Nepal are the most conservative. But since very few go through all the red tape, practically we have the most liberal regime,” jokes Mohan Mainali, director of the acclaimed film on disappearances, The Living of Jogimara.

It is perhaps fortunate that implementation is poor, because the rules relating to films as issued by the Ministry of Information are extremely rigid, as is evident from the certification procedure mentioned above. Meanwhile, apart from a few Maoist films made during former king Gyanendra’s rule, very few films have come under fire in Nepal. (Exceptions include Aago and Balidan, both of which explore periods of violence in the country – the former the recent Maoist insurgency, and the latter the 1990 Jana Andolan.) According to critics, this has much to do with the fact that the subjects explored by Nepali films are not controversial. Documentary filmmakers in Nepal, some suggest, tend to hold back and self-censor to avoid confrontation. As a result, no hard-hitting investigative political film has been made thus far.

Filmmakers also argue that if the Censor Board is to exist in Nepal, it needs to include filmmakers, critics and people from the film industry – those who understand the nuances of cinema, and not those who will just watch for and cut out overly explicit sexual scenes. All the same, many today say that there is an urgent need for the Censor Board to move away from censorship, to evolve into a certifying body. Similar to their peers in India, they argue that the Board should let experimental films and documentaries be free from censorship, through written rules and regulations. “We talk about the digital revolution, about how film production has become accessible universally,” says filmmaker and critic Kedar Sharma. “But are we reaping any benefits from the revolution when inconsistent regulations have created obstacles and blockades in every step of the way?” With the laws so inconsistent, filmmakers go around in circles trying to make sense of the process, often scrambling to obtain the necessary permissions even when the film is complete.

This call is partly a result of the lack of consistency in the approach to films and other mass media, such as television. While the feature films have to go through such stringent regulations, television serials, soaps and comedy series are exempt from the process. Filmmakers say it is unfair that films, which command a smaller audience than TV, have to go through these rules while the latter do not. “Television series use crass language and humour, but no government authority is watching them and cutting those bits out,” says Sharma. If a censor board has to exist, Sharma asks, why are some media getting away largely scot-free, while others are continually hammered?  Even though the censorship regime for documentaries are lax, amidst the anarchic situation and a weak state, observers such as Sharma say it is important to guarantee openness for the long term, including by scrapping censorship of documentaries. After all, there could easily be an autocratic regime that comes into power in the future, which would begin to implement existing regulations.

Still protecting morals
In contrast to the situation in India and Nepal, the government of Bangladesh is closely involved in both the production and censoring of films. Bangladeshi filmmakers call this an ‘incestuous’ relationship. Although the investment is private, the state is involved in every pre- and post- production process – shooting, editing, sound-production, and also has land and printing facilities for use in almost all popular features. Again, however, implementation seems to be a significant issue. The Censor Board can overlook things, or can impose restrictions. To evade restrictions, producers and directors have started to cut out sexually explicit scenes and dialogues and parts that are critical of the government or religion and send it to the Censor Board. When the board passes with certification these ‘cut pieces’ are spliced up and sent for distribution. Often, government restrictions are not followed, even by the hall-owners, due to weak monitoring mechanisms and bribes from producers of the film.

In Bangladesh too, the Board does not act as a certification body, and it has the power to censor and ban films. Interestingly, however, documentaries do not have to be submitted to the Censor Board for evaluation unless they are made on celluloid – which, of course, is a quickly dying practice in the digital age. But the films that are required to be submitted are treated harshly. In 2008, the Board banned one in four films submitted, citing “irrelevant scripts”, “excessive fighting sequences”, “dirty dancing” or “immoral cinema”. In the same year, the Board also imposed a censorship screening fee for the 145 domestic and international films being shown at Dhaka International Film Festival. Five of the entries were considered “not suitable for public screening”, while a levy of USD 145 was charged for the over 20 films that ran longer than 90 minutes. This was the first time such a levy was imposed in the festival’s 16-year history, and the organisers had to pool their resources to pay the fee so that the proceedings did not have to be called off.

And the situation has not improved since the military-backed caretaker government, which was on a crusade to ‘clean up’ films, lost power in December 2008. Earlier, under the rule of the left-leaning Awami League, films with heavy sexual content had flourished. Indeed, this was also largely the case during the regime of the right-leaning Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Other themes proved more problematic. Regarding Tareque Masud’s Matir Moina (2002), about the lives of students in madrassas in the 60s and 70s, the Censor Board claimed that it should not be shown in public as it contained ‘religiously sensitive’ material. Filmmakers note that the depiction of pornography and violence is undergoing change in the direction of stringent control. A greater level of censorship, both government-led and self-imposed by the industry seems to be taking place. “Films showing pornography and violence have come under stricter control and self-regulation. This change has not only impacted on films, but also on poster designs, which is now subject to greater censorship,” says Shafiur Rahman, a documentary producer who is currently writing about film posters and censorship in Bangladesh.

Ultimately, any study of the manner in which Southasia’s censor boards wield power underlines the fact that the governments of the region remain actively involved in controlling the information that films convey to the people. This is problematic in itself, but it is even more disturbing that those in power continue to demonstrate unabashed political bias in the censorship process. Yet that this would happen is, perhaps, inevitable. As such, there can be no solution while governments see themselves as arbiters of a very particular view of morality.

(Text by Mallika Aryal for Himal Magazine)

 Mallika Aryal is a journalist based in Kathmandu, and co-director of Film South Asia.