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To stage or not to stage: Theatre censorship in India

india Updated: Oct 04, 2016 10:54 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
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In December 1872, the Calcutta National Theatrical Society staged Nil Darpan, a play written by Dinabandhu Mitra, that exposed the atrocities committed by British indigo planters on Indian farmers. While the play received glowing reviews in most newspapers with nationalistic leanings, it was expectedly criticised by the British press. There was a demand that the play be banned. Other plays followed, criticising and making fun of the white rulers. Finally, in 1876, came the Dramatic Performances Act, putting restrictions on the public performance of plays.

Cut to 2016. Nearly seven decades after the country’s independence from British rule, actor-director Amol Palekar moved the Mumbai high court in September, challenging rules framed under provisions of the Bombay Police Act, 1951, which make pre-censorship of drama scripts mandatory by the Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board. In his petition, Palekar said the rules framed under the provisions of the Act were arbitrary and violated citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under the Constitution. However, on September 26, the state government told the Bombay High Court that in March this year, the then commissioner of police had repealed the rule which required prior scrutiny of theatre scripts. Palekar has not replied to HT’s email requesting an interview. But veteran theatre personality Alyque Padamsee who had filed an affidavit in support of Palekar’s petition said he is not surprised by the court proceedings. “It is the way bureaucracy works,” he says.

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What the law says

Censorship of theatre in Maharashtra dates back to 1948 when a need was felt to have laws to stop the exploitation of women who performed in tamashas. In 1951, the Board for Prior Scrutiny of Tamasha came into being. Later, with a few amendments, it was renamed the Maharashtra Rangbhoomi Parinirikshan Mandal or the Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board.

Theatre groups have to submit two copies of the script to the Board for clearance before it can be staged. “The Board acts as a watchdog, because the kind of scripts we get have elements that can upset society. Our job is to avoid that,” says Arun Nalavade, chairman, Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board. The cleared script had to then obtain a performance license from the Mumbai Police’s license department. This step has been discontinued since March. However, a no-objection certificate from the local police station is still required. If the scriptwriter or director is unhappy with the Board’s decision he may request a meeting. If no consensus is reached, he may move court. Court proceedings, however, often take time. And the verdict, even if in favour of the scriptwriter or director, is not always able to do justice. Padamsee gives the example of Partap Sharma’s A Touch of Brightness. “Years back the play was to be performed abroad as part of a commonwealth arts festival. The Board ruled that it cannot be performed abroad. I was the director of the play. Sharma filed a court case against the Board decision and eventually won the case. But by then the event was over,” recalls Padamsee.

Down the years

In a previous newspaper article, Palekar gives the example of Vijay Tendulkar’s play Gidhade or The Vultures. In August 1970, the Board had banned the play claiming that the realistic portrayal of perverted socio-familial complications in the play, was unsuitable for a public performance. After the producer and the director of the play protested against the ban, the play was finally allowed to be staged after a few cuts. But the theatre group, and the audience of course, had the last laugh. The play began with the announcement that “in compliance with the objection from the censor board, the red stain on the rear of the sari of a particular female character who leaves the stage with her back to the audience, will henceforth be blue in colour.” In 1974, another Vijay Tendulkar play, Sakharam Binder, became the target of the moral police.

“The concept of having a censor board now is absurd because it is a live performance. There is bound to be on-stage improvisations and technically even if one word is changed from the approved script, we are breaking the law. As for the law and order aspect, there is a whole set of other laws to take care of it,” says theatre director-producer Sunil Shanbag. In 2009, Shanbag directed Sex, Morality and Censorship, which at its core presented the well-documented history of Sakharam Binder and the discomfort it had caused many. Playwright-director Ramu Ramanthan remembers how his plays Comrade Kumbhakarna (2011) and Cotton 54, Polyester 86 (2006) ran into trouble with the Board because they had named famous politicians. “That had to be changed. After that, I had to use allegories to get my point across to the audience without naming people. What is worrying is how the censor board seems to be getting more teeth after Independence,” he says.

The concept of censorship, many feel, is especially meaningless today, when the Internet makes every kind of content easily accessible to everyone.

A scene from the play Comrade Kumbhakarna written by Ramu Ramanathan, directed by Mohit Takalkar and produce by NSD repertory school. (S. Thyagarajan (NSD) )

And elsewhere...

And yet, pre-censorship of theatre is not restricted to Maharashtra. Gujarat is another state which has a law for censorship of theatre. “We do have a censor board, but the members are all playwrights and theatre actors and directors. The board members are elected by the Gujarat Sangeet Natak Akademi and the state government. But the Board is very liberal. We are even free to stage anti-establishment plays, but we don’t name people or parties,” says Shailesh Tevani, a dramatist and drama critic in Gujarat.

Outsiders going to Gujarat with their plays though, have a different story to tell – yes, even if your company is based outside Maharashtra or Gujarat, and you have staged a particular production across the country, you need an approval from the censor boards in these two states to stage the play there. Delhi-based theatre director Sayeed Alam remembers the run-in that he had with the censor board in Gujarat. “We had already had already staged a play called Maulana Azad across the country. We wanted to stage it in Gujarat. But the censor board there objected to a line in the play where Maulana Azad says ‘Sardar Patel was perhaps the founder of India’s partition’. I explained to them that it was not a line written by the scriptwriter, but had been taken from Maulana Azad’s book, India Wins Freedom. The censor board wanted us to cut out that line. We didn’t agree, so we couldn’t stage it. A few years later we did stage the play in Gujarat, but that was at a private show,” says Alam.

A scene from the play Maulana Azad, directed by Sayeed Alam that ran into trouble with the censor board in Gujarat (Photo courtesy: Sayeed Alam)

Not that Alam, or other Delhi-based theatre groups enjoy complete liberty in the national capital. In Delhi, any performance needs a license from the Delhi Police’s licensing unit, one of the requirements of which is that a “brief synopsis about the performance containing details of the artist and contents of the programme” be mentioned. Organisers also have to give an undertaking that the show does not have any “profanity, impropriety of language, indecency, anything likely to cause riot or excite feelings of sedition or political discontent etc”. “If the synopsis gives us the feeling that something in the play may lead to a law and order problem, we withhold license and ask the local police station under whose jurisdiction the performance is taking place to investigate. Even after the license has been granted, if we get a complaint or find out that the terms of the undertaking are being violated, we serve the organisers and auditorium owners a show cause notice. Their license may be cancelled too,” says a senior cop working in the licencing unit.

In recent years though, Alam feels, the ease of performing in Delhi has improved. “Much of it is because of the Sheila Dikshit government. Earlier, we had to approach at least five-six agencies of the Delhi Police – traffic, licencing, local police etc before being allowed to perform. Now we can just apply at one place and they get the necessary documents. Even the Aam Admi Party government is supportive to theatre groups,” he says.

Anasuya Vaidya of Delhi’s Akshara Theatre, who has made a film on theatre censorship, remembers a time when laws were stricter in Delhi and how her parents, Jalbala Vaidya and the late Gopal Sharman, always fought against them. “Since we had our own auditorium, it was easier for us to not comply with unfair rules. We never submitted a script or even a synopsis of the play to any authority, nor did we ask any group that was performing at our theatre to do it. There were phone calls and visits by officials, but our shows were never stopped,” says Vaidya. In Mumbai though, since the group has to perform at a theatre not owned by them, they do have to send their scripts to the censor board. “At one of our plays the Board had said we can’t use the word ‘balls’. We felt it was an integral part of the script and the humour would be lost if we replace the word. So we just went ahead and performed without any changes. Thankfully no censor police was sent to check whether we had made the changes,” says Anasuya, with a laugh.

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Apart from the ridiculousness of such censorship, there are also practical pitfalls of censorship. “It encourages a parallel economy of agents or touts whom you pay to get the license or censor approval quickly and easily,” says Delhi-based theatre director Aamir Raza Husain. “Sometimes, if you are in a hurry, these agents will get you approval in a day. One feels then that the Board is not really reading the script. So what is the point then?” he questions.

Then there is the eternal question of whether cops or a state-appointed or elected committee have the merit to judge what is not right in a script. “They say if you do not agree with the decision of the Board, you can move court. Then let whoever has a problem with the play also move court against it. Why this system of pre-censorship,” questions Alam.

Amol Palekar’s case at the Mumbai High Court is pending decision. (A bench of Chief Justice Manjula Chellur and Justice MS Sonak felt that after the relevant rule was repealed, nothing was left to hear. However, it posted the petition for further hearing on next Tuesday after the defence counsel sought time to check on the state claim that the law on censorship has been repealed.) Unless the case manages to strike down censorship completely, it would have achieved little apart from fanning the debate on the issue again.

(With inputs from Anesha George)