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Censoring documentaries

No government loves the depiction of harsh reality, so nuzzling of documentary cinema is no surprise, writes Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2003 19:41 IST

No government in the world, least of all one with an undisguised long-term agenda, loves the depiction of harsh reality. So, given half a pretext, it has no hesitation in going the whole hog to muzzle the voices of troublesome documentary filmmakers. The Films Division (FD), organisers of the biennial competitive Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), seems to be bent upon doing just that.

The FD has sprung a cruel surprise on independent documentary filmmakers by announcing that no Indian film will be allowed to participate in MIFF 2004 without a censor certificate. It has left the fraternity fuming.

With good reason. The FD move is clearly at variance with the international norm - film festivals around the world screen uncensored films because they respect the right of a filmmaker to unfettered self-expression. But who cares for such niceties when bureaucrats are allowed a free run of the organization of an international film festival?

The filmmakers-versus-FD battle is now out in the open. Over 100 leading members of the Indian documentary filmmaking fraternity, several of them Golden Conch winners, have submitted a letter to the Union information and broadcasting minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, protesting against the FD decision. Is the government willing to pay heed to their appeal?

If it doesn’t, it would be tantamount to a complete travesty of justice especially in the light of the fact that the FD has made a distinction between Indian and foreign films. Its mandatory censorship clause is applicable only to films made in the country; films from outside can get in without any intervention. This discriminatory step militates against all principles of fair play. It puts Indian filmmakers at a clear disadvantage and they have threatened a complete boycott of MIFF 2004.

The FD has cited a precedent in support of their abrupt ruling: Indian films that participate in the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) have to subject themselves to censorship. But what has been conveniently left unsaid is that these IFFI films need a censor certificate simply because eligibility for the festival crucially hinges on a pre-determined cut-off date. It is a selection mechanism that has been existence ever since the inception of the Indian Panorama section in 1978 and the insistence on a censor certificate has never had anything to do with the content of a film.

But the MIFF move is extremely questionable. As independent documentary filmmakers have pointed out, it is part of larger design to weed out films that articulate uncomfortable social and political truths. Had this rule been introduced a couple of years ago, Anand Patwardhan’s highly acclaimed anti-nuke film, War and Peace, would not have qualified for MIFF.

The movers of the “censor certificate first” idea have sought refuge behind the plea that the National Commission of Women and others have been constantly demanding action against vulgarity on television. While the TV channels merrily continue to air objectionable images both in their programmes and advertising, the NCW petitions have been cynically exploited to clamp down on documentary films.

The documentary fraternity is not however giving up without a fight. Filmmakers have planned a concerted campaign against the move and are firming up plans to hold protest demonstrations in all major filmmaking centres of India in a now-or-never struggle.

In a statement, the collective of independent documentary filmmakers has said: “The attempt to gag films at MIFF is clearly a part of a larger emerging scenario of extreme intolerance in India. Documentaries are now being recognized as a form that has the potential of inspiring debate and thought among diverse audiences. Many documentaries reveal ‘truths’ that are uncomfortable for those in power or seeking power. In the coming years we will probably witness more attacks on documentary filmmakers and therefore if ever this is the time for us to respond to these challenges as a community.”

It is indeed mystifying that a system that allows rabid communalists to deliver incendiary speeches and spread hate at election rallies, on television and through pamphlets and tapes meant for public distribution deems it so essential to subject documentary filmmakers to censorship prior to an international film festival.

The face-off has the makings of a fight to the finish. On the outcome of the ensuing tussle will hinge the very future of India’s independent documentary movement.