Censoring peace amid nuclear "deterrence"
According to a front page report in the New Indian Express on 17 June, the CBFC is toying with the idea of allowing theatres to screen pornographic movies without cuts. The proposal was apparently received from an official panel in Kerala. The chairperson of the Board, Vijay Anand, has been quoted as saying, "The committee thought it wasn't possible to stamp out the sex film trade. The better option is to regulate it, like they do in other countries: set up special halls, levy 2-3 times the regular entertainment duty." The report suggests that if the proposed amendments to the Cinematograph Act, 1952, are approved by Parliament, the CBFC will institute a restricted category of X- or R-rated films to be shown in special halls and possibly other appropriate places. The government will, no doubt, profit from the promotion of pornography, as it does from the promotion of liquor.
A more urgent concern at this point is the possibility that the proposed liberalisation of the censorship regime may not extend to the political content of cinema. The recent experience of well-known documentary film-maker Anand Patwardhan indicates that the CBFC may not be able or willing to free itself from the shackles of political correctness as defined by the government of the day.
According to a press release issued by Patwardhan, the Censor Board has called for as many as six cuts in his award-winning documentary film, War and Peace. Of the major cuts demanded by the Board, the most astounding is this: the deletion of all visuals and dialogues of political leaders featured in the film, including the prime minister and other ministers. Since no specific visuals or dialogues have been identified as objectionable, it is clear that no politician is to be seen or heard. Obviously, as Patwardhan puts it, "The Censor Board deems it illegal to report the speeches of ministers, prime ministers and political leaders."
Two other cuts asked for by the Board are also quite astonishing. One calls for the deletion of the entire sequence featuring a neo-Buddhist Dalit leader's condemnation of the 1998 nuclear tests, including his critical comments on the choice of the Buddha's birthday for the explosions and the use of the Buddha's name in the military code proclaiming the success of the tests in view of the fact that the Buddha was always unarmed and has long been identified with peace. The second demands the expunction of a Dalit song which describes the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Brahmin.
Yet another proposed cut is predictable, though nonetheless revealing: the deletion of all the visuals and dialogues relating to the corruption scandal exposed by Tehelka.com. As Patwardhan points out, his film includes only brief extracts from the Tehelka tapes, whereas over four hours of the widely-publicised footage had been broadcast nationally on prime time television.
Such extreme sensitivity to the contents of a documentary film promoting peace is extraordinary, especially in the context of the CBFC's reported plans to permit, if not promote, pornographic movies. The Board had earlier employed delay as well as pressure tactics to block the film. It was mysteriously withdrawn from a film festival organised by the Films Division of India in Kolkata even though it was meant to be the inaugural film. The explanations or excuses proffered - non-receipt of the film and, later, receipt of a damaged copy - were unconvincing, especially in view of the prior boast or threat by the regional officer of the Censor Board in Mumbai that he would prevent the screening in Kolkata.
Beginning and ending with Mahatma Gandhi and his ideas, the three-hour film, which won two major awards at the Films Division's own Mumbai International Film Festival in February 2002, presents a convincing argument in favour of peace. Filmed over three tumultuous years in India, Pakistan, Japan and the USA, framed by the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan in May 1998 and the terrorist attacks in the U.S.A. in September 2001, the film documents the growth of peace activism across the world in the face of global militarism and war. It brings home the fact that there are hawks and doves everywhere, including India and Pakistan. It argues that religious "fundamentalism" and jingoistic "patriotism" are two sides of the same coin. In a timely forewarning about the dangers of nuclear war, it highlights the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and chronicles the health and other problems of people living near nuclear testing and mining sites.
For all the gravity and potential grimness of the subject, and its hard-hitting, if indirect, commentary on warmongers everywhere, the film comes through as essentially humane, focussing as it does on the desire for peace among ordinary citizens on both sides of the contentious border between India and Pakistan.
This probably explains the appeal of the film to a wide range of viewers. The audiences who packed the hall on two consecutive days during the Bangalore premiere of War and Peace were clearly absorbed and moved by what is undoubtedly a powerful film. Many stayed on for discussions with the film-maker after the screenings, despite the length of the film, the lateness of the hour and the threat of rain. Several who saw it on the first day came back for a repeat viewing the very next day. A teenager who had brought along a novel, expecting to be bored by the documentary, publicly admitted that he had not opened his book. A number of people expressed the hope that the film would be widely distributed so that its message of peace could be effectively disseminated. Yet that is precisely what the Censor Board seems determined to prevent.
According to a report in The Times of India, the stalemate may be resolved when Patwardhan appears before a larger committee of the Board in the near future. The film-maker, however, points out that the issue goes beyond his own documentary and has implications for the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution: "Officials of the Censor Board must be made to understand that their brief cannot be to wield their scissors in the interest of any particular ideology." The CBFC chairperson apparently believes that certain scenes in the film are objectionable and could incite trouble. "I do not want a law and order situation over the film," he has been quoted as saying. The response of viewers in Bangalore suggests that, with its emphasis on peace and non-violence, the documentary is sobering rather than provocative.
It is a strange world where nuclear weapons are believed to help prevent war and a film on peace is seen as a potential instigator of violence.
Ammu Joseph is the Bangalore-based author of two books on the media and is a freelance writer. This article is reproduced on India Together with permission from The Hoot.org through Space Share, our content-sharing program for publishers of other public-interest content. Click here to learn more about Space Share.