When Pan Nalin finished shooting Angry Indian Goddesses (AIG), he had not considered two things:
First: That it would beat star-studded films (like Ridley Scott’s outer space tale, The Martian, starring Matt Damon, and Scott Cooper’s gangster thriller, Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp) and be declared the first runner-up for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the prestigious 40th Toronto International Film Festival.
After all, when the idea of a women-centric drama about seven friends converging in Goa for a wedding first came up in 2008 in a conversation with casting director and line producer Dilip Shankar, the movie had no takers. He was questioned by producers: “Who will watch this film?”
Second: That after a successful run on the international film festival circuit (the Atlantic Film Festival, the Zürich Film Festival, the Rome Film Festival), it would face the wrath of India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). That the simplest of words would have to be snipped out (more on that later).
This is not the first time Pan Nalin (aka Nalin Pandy) has made the world stand up and take notice of him. His first film, Samsara (2001), about a six-year-old boy who becomes a Buddhist monk, won the Most Popular Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
AIG, touted as ‘India’s first female buddy film’, is a departure from the spiritual theme that runs through most of Nalin’s work. With an eclectic cast: Amrit Maghera, Anushka Manchanda, Pavleen Gujral, Rajshri Deshpande, Sandhya Mridul, Sarah-Jane Dias and Tannishtha Chatterjee, AIG is a stark portrayal of urban women today. There’s female bonding (“but not male-bashing”), lots of laughter and quirkiness, and some anger too.
Excerpts from an interview:
The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) demanded as many as 16 cuts in your film.
More than the cuts, what was really surprising was the demand to blur out the goddesses. Our opening credits featured a lot of calendar art, like that of goddesses Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kali with the Kattey song sung by Bhanvari Devi and Ram Sampath in the background. This is interspersed with some real archival images of women protesting in different places.
We were told that we could keep the images of women protesting but the CBFC asked us to blur out the images of these goddesses. Why? We haven’t been able to understand that even today!
Angry Indian Goddesses — Censored!
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Then there is a scene where the girls are chatting, and Amrit Maghera’s character, a British-born, half-Indian girl, spots a poster of Kali (who Anushka Manchanda’s character worships). She asks, “Who is this?” And Anushka explains, “Jab duniya mein paap badh jaata hai toh Kali takes on her ferocious avatar to destroy and restore order.” And we were asked to blur out the poster. No explanations were given. They just told us that if you want a certificate, you need to blur the image of every single goddess.
What about muting certain words?
One of the characters says, “Don’t be jealous, I’ve got an Indian figure.” So we were told to mute ‘Indian figure’ because apparently, it shows women in a bad light. We tried to reason that an Indian figure is something everyone’s proud of. .
At one point, the girls are discussing homosexuality and one of them says, “Sarkar kaun hoti hai hamein bolne wali whom should we love.” Mute the word ‘sarkar,’ we were instructed.
These are casual conversations. What’s surprising is that the film has been seen in this microscopic way [by the censors]. They do not see the overall impact that the film has. Not one person has come to us and told us, “Oh you’ve shown goddesses in such a bad light” or that “it’s blasphemy.”
Rather, what has happened is the opposite. We got a letter suggesting that we write to the Prime Minister. He shouts himself hoarse about Beti Bachao. This film is the perfect step towards the initiative.
What are your views on cinema and censorship in India?
Not just India, but for any country, if after you’ve given an A-certificate to a film, you decide to mute and blur out words like ‘lunch’ and ‘Indian figure’, it just shows that we think people above 18 are stupid. If my film is not given an A-certificate then it makes sense if girls saying ‘lunch saamne se aa raha hai’ to a boy might not be ‘sanskaari’. It’s still fair.
The rules of censorship are interpreted as per the convenience of whoever has power. But the way we consume stories has changed. These rules might have been important 30 years ago, but today I can get anything I want on my smartphone, on the internet. We’re living in an era of information.
By muting and censoring certain things, we are only highlighting those issues. There are so many English movies where kisses were not cut. And those kisses are longer than the James Bond one.
But by cutting that one scene, you highlighted the issue so much that people went online to see the kiss. Otherwise people would’ve ignored it. I mean, who cares whether Monica Bellucci is kissed for four minutes or one?
And I think this is where we need to reflect. If you want to censor certain things, why not have rules and censor at the script level? Because, there are a lot of people like us making films, giving our blood, sweat and tears; and the producer putting up his apartment to get finance because we don’t have big studios.
So for people like us, take our script, look at it and censor it before filming, so we don’t spend that much money. We were even told to change the title of the film by the censors! My producers argued with them, they wanted to retain the title and were told that if you want the title, then blur out the goddesses. We lost lakhs of rupees – to remix and remake the print.
If there is censorship in the 21st century, we really need to think of it in relation to the internet. And if at all there is still a CBFC, then the big question is – are these three-four people watching movies sitting in a dark room in Mumbai, powerful enough to decide what the population of 1.2 billion people should watch?
Why did you name it Angry Indian Goddesses?
Angry Indian Goddesses was supposed to be just the working title. When we started research, we talked to women from all walks of life – students in college canteens, CEOs or professionals. We chatted about their personal lives, their lives at home and at work. And real issues like fears, judgments, and insecurities came up.
We could sense that there was angst about something – it could have been over an issue at home or work or what a girl suffered in the local train, or in getting harassed by boys while getting off the rickshaw. But it was anger to bring about a change. This is when I realised that Angry Indian Goddesses was a perfect fit for the film I was trying to make.
The film doesn’t have a star cast. A few of the actors are in fact making their debut in Hindi cinema with your film. Was that a conscious decision?
We would have loved to put the actresses that I admire in the movie – Deepika Padukone or Priyanka Chopra – they are all amazing talents. But the big stars are surrounded by the so-called ‘gate-keepers’ and they all had very wrong questions to ask us, such as: “How much screen-time will I get if there are seven women?”
Now, I can’t give you in writing that I will give you 10 minutes or 10 seconds. So we dropped the idea of using big names for the film and decided to go all out and find the actors who we really thought would help us make this film the best way possible.
350 jars of Nutella were consumed during the shoot and it was your biggest production expense.
The production was preparing salads and health food as we figured these girls would want to maintain their figure and skin. But clearly, these preconceived notions were broken when these girls arrived. The way they would eat bread and Nutella! After shooting any emotional scene they’d cry a lot and once the shot was over, they’d ask, “Now can I have a Nutella sandwich?”
In Toronto, during our world premiere party, we brought a tray filled with peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches to celebrate.
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From HT Brunch, December 13
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