Kissa Kursi Ka: The film that burnt Sanjay Gandhi

On 14th of July 1977, Sanjay Gandhi and former I & B minister, VC Shukla walked into the Tis Hazari court complex of Delhi as two of the most powerful people in Indian politics. When they walked out of the courts on that eventful Bastille Day, they had been indicted on the charges of 'wilful conspiracy' against a filmmaker and his film. 

Shriram Iyengar

If the history of India were to be arranged on a timeline, the two years from 1975 to 1977 will be marked in black. With the single stroke of a pen, president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed initiated one of the darkest periods of Indian democracy. The suspension of basic rights and the freedom of press cast a mysterious shadow over the period, making it a mythical story for those unfamiliar with the era. Sanjay Gandhi, the prime minister's eldest son, took over the administration and cracked the whip on any murmurs of dissent across the country.

There have been several spools of paper wasted arguing if the silence of high profile cine artistes as a sign of their capitalist notions. However, not all of the Hindi film industry was quiet. One of the films which became a symbol of rebellion against the political atmosphere was Amrit Nahata's 'Kissa Kursi Ka'. An MP in the Congress party, Nahata disavowed them during the Emergency. His film was a blatant spoof on the workings of the government, particularly the control wielded by Sanjay Gandhi and Indira Gandhi. Starring Shabana Azmi, Utpal Dutt, Manohari Singh, and Raj Kiran, the film was a burning satire on the government. It spoofed a corrupt, amoral politician who pretends to be a revolutionary after consuming a miraculous tonic 'netagiri'. There were direct remarks on some of the most potent symbols of power at that time, the Maruti Udyog set up by Sanjay Gandhi and the forced sterilisation programme. Once the film landed on the Censor Board's table, there was no way it would've been passed. The board suggested a ridiculous 51 cuts to the film. Incensed, the director Nahata submitted a petition to the courts. In October 1975, the Supreme Court ordered a five member panel to watch the film and submit its reports. They never did. What followed was a scene right out of a Bollywood film. According to Rakesh Nahata, the son of filmmaker Amrit Nahata, 'Overnight Sanjay Gandhi and his goons reached the processing labs in Mumbai where the 150 spools of the film were lying. This was packed in 13 steel trunks and taken to Delhi. The trunks were driven to the Maruti factory in Gurgaon and the film burnt...a "positive'' lying in the Films Division office at Mahadev Road was also seized and destroyed.'

Kissa Kursi Ka remains Amrit Nahata's only claim to fame. He had previously directed two films Sant Gyaneshwar(1965 ) and Raaton ka Raja (1967). Typically, the Indian public was unfamiliar with the name beyond his involvement in politics. It was Sanjay Gandhi's rapid and extreme action that provided the impetus the film needed. The Shah Commission in 1977 found Sanjay Gandhi and VC Shukla guilty of the crime and sentenced them to two years imprisonment. Though nobody in India had seen the film, it became the symbol of the film fraternity's stand. Nahata remade the film in 1978. Even the new government, unwilling to make permanent enemies, suggested 25 cuts to the movie (whose print was already burnt). Nahata remade the film in 1978, and also wrote to then I & B minister, LK Advani asking for Rs. 1 crore as compensation for his damages. No compensation arrived. He died on 26th April 2001. The film is now available on the internet for users to view.

As for Sanjay Gandhi, the verdict was overturned. But it proved to be the death knell to the Indira Gandhi government which  could never recover from the tarring of the Emergency. Rakesh Nahata, the son of the late filmmaker, was in the news recently discussing plans about a remake of the film. In 2015, 40 years after the Emergency, the I&B ministry was mulling a decision of recompensing the filmmaker's family for the punitive damages incurred. Governments have come and go, but the 'Kissa Kursi Ka' goes on.