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Cinema, censored

For months, viewers have been watching the promos of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Ramleela on their television screens. But on November 15, 2013, when the film released in theatres, they were surprised to find the film starting with the title Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. No, it wasn’t a last-minute change thought of by Bhansali or by his well-wishers. After an objection raised against the title of the film by a couple of organisations, the makers of the film were forced to change the title.


Ramleela courted controversy with its title which had to be changed to Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela before release

Deja vu? Well, it seems so, considering the number of objections and problems that have been raised by various fringe groups - religious or political - in the past few years. So while the Barber at the end of Billu Barber had to be trimmed off as the Salon and Beauty Parlour associations found the word ‘derogatory’, Ajay Devgn had to remove some ‘objectionable content’ from his film Son of Sardar after a few Sikh organisations raised issues. Madhuri Dixit’s comeback film Aaja Nachle courted controversy with its title track that contained the word ‘Mochi’ (cobbler). Dalit organisations managed to ban the film in many states before the producers finally removed the word from the song.


Singh Saheb The Great faced trouble on many fronts, including its title

Aaj ka gundaraj? Not really, considering art has been the punching bag for many since times immemorial. Right from MF Husain’s paintings to writer Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to Ismat Chughtai’s writings, history has proof that artistic expressions that have been banned have gone on to become classics. “Sadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai, who were tried in court for obscenity in those times, are part of literature and taught in schools today,” says film writer Shibani Bathija.


Shootout at Wadala was banned in its opening weekend in Punjab as a certain group took offence to a dialogue in the film

“History teaches us that these sort of objections are plain harassment and therefore, unlawful. As a country, we should not tolerate it.” Two years ago, when Prakash Jha’s film Aarakshan, based on the reservation issue, was about to be released, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati said the film’s screening could create law and order issues in the state. But the Supreme Court rejected the plea saying that no state can ban a film that has been cleared by the Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC). While that might be true, that hasn’t deterred fringe groups from finding something to get offended at.


My Name is Khan saw packed theatres even after there were demands for banning the film

A film is everyone’s property
Everyone knows how big a hit Sanjay Gupta’s Shootout at Wadala was. The film, released early this year, had a starcast comprising John Abraham, Anil Kapoor, Sonu Sood among others. But what a lot of people don’t know, was that the film was banned in Punjab in its opening weekend. The reason? “There is a dialogue in the film where John is studying when a cop arrests him,” Gupta tells us, “The line that the cop delivers was ‘Har chor Valmiki nahin banta’ (Every thief doesn’t become a Valmiki). But I was not aware that there was an organisation in North India called Valmiki Samaj that found this line offensive.


Madras Cafe was banned in Tamil Nadu after some political parties felt the film showed Tamilians in bad light

My film was banned in its opening weekend in Punjab and it was back in theatres on Monday once I had removed the line.” Any filmmaker would tell you that losing the opening weekend in any state practically kills the business of the film. But Gupta says they had no option but to abide by the organisation’s demand. “The sad part is we don’t get any political support or police support when such a thing happens. If a group says we’re going the ransack the theatre and remove the film, you don’t get 500 policemen deployed outside the theatre. Film banate hum hain, sabko lagta hai unke baap ka maal hai. (We make the film, but everyone thinks it’s their father’s property.)”

In the past, filmmakers have often bowed down to the wishes of religious organisations in order to not ‘hurt their religious sentiments’. Son of Sardar, Vishwaroopam, Kya Sooper Kool Hain Hum and even the Hollywood film, Da Vinci Code, are some examples of films that faced the ire of religious groups, the most recent being the Sunny Deol-starrer Singh Saheb The Great. The Punjabi Cultural Heritage Board has raised several issues with the film, one of them objecting to the title of the film. But director Anil Sharma believes that filmmakers are the last people who will intentionally hurt anyone’s sentiments.

“We won’t do that because our business depends on satisfying your sentiments and emotions. If we hurt people’s sentiments, we’re hurting our own business,” he states. And while on religion, Bathija presents us with another interesting view. “All our religions have lasted for over thousands of years. How can something as fundamental as religion get shaken up by a film? It makes no sense.” The writer of films such as My Name is Khan and Fanaa, believes that these sort of objections take place in all spheres of art, but with films, there is more pay-off in terms of the mileage the offended party gets out of it. “If nobody gave a s***, then why would they do it? It wouldn’t matter then,” she adds.

Political pressures too, have at times, led to banning of the film in some states. Aamir Khan’s anti-Narmada stance led to Fanaa being banned in Gujarat, while Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan almost met the same fate in Maharashtra after he made some comments about the Pakistani cricket team not being part of the Indian Premier League.

And while John Abraham-starrer Madras Cafe received rave reviews across the country, the political espionage thriller was banned in Tamil Nadu by political parties citing that it depicts the members of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as terrorists. Director Shoojit Sircar strongly believes that such kind of objections should not be entertained. “There is not just a lot of money involved, but a lot of hard work too that goes into the making of a film. You cannot hold back film lovers with sheer force. If some groups have a problem, they can approach the courts,” he says.

Changing guidelines
And while issues like religious sentiments, vulgarity, violence and others are subjective matters, some sections of the industry believe that certain guidelines need to be in place for proper enforcement of laws. Bathija feels the guidelines of CBFC are too ambiguous and need to be amended. “Stopping the release of the film is not the answer.

That’s why we need guidelines. If a film is following guidelines, it needs to be played regardless of what you, I or any third party thinks,” she says, adding that there should be a standard set of guidelines, thereby negating the possibility of anybody standing up and objecting to it. “It’s not a question of who’s right or wrong, but if a film has gone through the due process, then nobody has the right to object,” opines Bathija.

Charan Singh Sapra, President of Punjabi Cultural Heritage Board, who has raised objections to Singh Saheb The Great, believes that there is a technical issue at fault at the CBFC. “They have a six member committee, where even if five members okay the film and the sixth man doesn’t, then it gets cleared. The pattern followed by them is wrong.

I am writing to the ministry that if there is a film made on a certain religion, then half of the viewing committee should be of that religion,” he says. Sapra doesn’t believe that they are doing anything wrong by asking for changes in films. “Production houses should also realise that they might be hurting somebody’s religious sentiments, If we are pointing out the mistake, then they should be open to suggestions. They should have no problem rectifying unintentional mistakes,” he adds.

A collective step
Needless to say, finding a solution to such issues is foremost on filmmakers’ minds. And so it should be, says media person and filmmaker Pritish Nandy. “Filmmakers need to come together and find a solution because if they don’t, this could become a menace, which it has to a great extent,” he says. According to Nandy, there is no basis for these fringe groups to act upon, other than to exploit a commercial opportunity. “The laws of the country state that after the censor board has cleared a film, nobody can interfere with its screening. Still, individuals or groups indulge in this behaviour,” he says.

A positive step in this direction seems to have been taken with the stage being all set for the amendment of the Cinematograph Act 1952. Among the several issues that have come up for recommendation, arbitrary ban on films is one. And it is a welcome move indeed. Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt is of the opinion that once the Act is amended, filmmakers will be able to breathe in peace. “When the Cinematograph Act, which has been worked upon in great deal, comes into operation, the kind of problems we are being confronted with every second release will become a thing of the past,” he says.

Explaining its functioning in greater detail, Bhatt says that once the amended Act comes into operation, any complaint that an organisation or individual has with a film, will be addressed by a tribunal. “Once they have looked at it, the tribunal will take a decision keeping in mind the larger well-being of the nation and society. It’s very important that this country is run by law and not by the whims and fancies of a handful of people,” adds Bhatt.

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more... than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so f***ing what.’ When actor and writer Stephen Fry famously said those words, he probably wasn’t thinking of this scenario. We think he came close enough. 

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