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Interview Hindi

Ridiculous that India still considers homosexuals as criminals: Director Raj Amit Kumar on Unfreedom

The director of the raging Netflix drama spoke to us about the issues of sexuality, censorship, and filmmaking. 

Shriram Iyengar

Unfreedom might seem like a dissonating title for a film that stands for freedom in every sense of the word, but Raj Amit Kumar's drama captures the limitations and boundaries within which society limits individuals. The film, now available on Netflix, did not have an easy journey.

On its initial release in 2015, the film was banned by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which cited that the 'film will ignite unnatural (read homosexual) passions and incite rapes and communal violence in India.' Even the director's appeal to the FCAT proved futile, resulting in the film's digital release. 

WIth a technical cast of sound designer Resul Pookutty, cinematographer Hari Nair [Shutter (2012), Kerala Cafe (2009)], editor Atanu Mukherjee (Rukh, 2017), Unfreedom is sharp, concise and effective in its portrayal of the violence, and oppression that is fuelled by the dogmatism of power today. 

The film's release on Netflix though has proved advantageous, as it has offered Kumar access to a larger and more receptive audience. Speaking about it, he says, "I am glad that Unfreedom finds such a popular platform like Netflix after the ban in India and the efforts of censorship guardians in India to stop the film. It also exposes the hypocrisy and divide between reality and fantasy of censorship system in India. There is no way they can control and censor content in digital age, yet, they try their best to choke filmmakers like me who have something relevant to say that makes them feel threatened.”

Holding a Masters' in Cinema and Media Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY), the director went on to do a PhD at the Southern Illinois University in the subject before directing his first film, Blemished Light. 

In an email conversation with us, the director spoke about the challenges he faced to make Unfreedom and securing its release, and the driving need for such films.

"The boldness of something is always defined by what you are allowed to say or not in a society. The boldness of an artist is always defined by what others artist around him have not said or what they are not allowed to express. Thus, it is not the content in my film per say makes it bold, but it the context of a society in which it is told, it is the fact that we have become such a weak and conservative society where we are asked to shut up all the time," he says. 

Following are excerpts from the interview.

What drew you to the subject of the film? You focus on sexuality as one of the many dimensions of freedom that has been controlled in India. What led you to the theme? 

Questions of sex, violence, and power are central to my filmmaking. So much violence we see in today’s world in name of identity — religious, racial, class, regional, sexual identities and so on. I wanted to make a film on subject of identity and violence, and so, Unfreedom. 
Sex and violence shapes and reshapes the world. Controlling sexuality is at the core of social control and power in society. It is the case worldwide. India is just two steps further backward in the context of not giving the LGBT community its rights. It is ridiculous to imagine that in 21st century, India considers homsexuals as criminals. Pretty darn shameful. Hence, I decided to address it at least in my work. 

What was the major risk when tackling such a subject? What were the major challenges in the scripting and shooting phase? 

Major risk in such cases is always not being able to find backers to make such a content. And on top, it was my first film. So, it took half a decade of my life to get this done. There were immense challenges from raising finances, to casting lead actresses, to shooting in India with such a subject, so on and so forth. The list is pretty long. But there comes a satisfaction after overcoming those obstacles and sticking to your conviction. I guess there is only one way to deal with any challenge when you make a movie — determination. Motivation and determination that no matter what, you will see it to the finish line.

The film, considering its subject, obviously ran into trouble with the CBFC? You are among the many filmmakers who have spoken against the system of censorship in place. But what is the replacement, if any? How do filmmakers bridge the gap between a willing audience and an intensely patriarchal system? 

Replacement? It is simple. Throw the censor board [CBFC] in garbage and replace it with freedom of speech and expression. It is basic human right, and so give it to all Indians. Why should filmmakers be asked to bridge any gap? Filmmakers makes films, so let them make films with complete expressive freedom. It doesn't matter what they make — good, bad, ugly. 
 What are the advantages of platforms like Netflix. Filmmakers are still reticent about its reach, although it does offer a distinct advantage for films that might not usually find release owing to censor norms. How do you view it? 

Netflix's decision to ignore censor certificate is commendable. Other digital companies such as Amazon, Balaji, Eros, etc should follow in their footsteps. So, Netflix is helpful, but in a very limited way. Something is better than nothing. But they are not a godsend, a blessing, an alternative. Filmmakers don’t make films for Netflix, unless commissioned.

Regardless of people being able to see a film online, the key question is still that we should not see anything as an alternative to freedom of expression. It’s the most basic human right that we need to have, and we should not divert our attention from that. You can’t come and say, 'Hey! Look you have freedom of expression on Netflix but not in theaters.'
The growing encroachment of the digital platform has alternately helped and changed cinema viewing in India. For an independent filmmaker, does this spell good news or more severe competition? 

Competition is always going to be there. But the amount of film that gets made because of cheaper technology is getting crazier by day. More platforms means more opportunities to make and show your content. I only see it as positive. I just wonder the harming effects of it on theatrical viewing. There is a certain experience of watching movie in theatres and we should do everything to preserve that. 
The conversation about sexuality and freedom has been growing across the board. However, India still lags behind when it comes to acceptance of gender freedom. What are the changes you would like to see? 

Equality in opportunities. I have known more stronger Indian women than men. They just need as many opportunities as men with equal and fair rights. And the government and state should stay out of our sex lives. Government's job should be protecting us and creating an environment where our basic human rights are upheld. Our current system seem to be doing opposite of it.
Does it disappoint you that more artists do not step out with works that speak up for such causes, despite the opposition by the majority/mainstream? 

It is a huge disappointment. If more art is made against the mainstream regression, and more filmmakers speak and stand up against censorship, the censor board [CBFC] would have been abolished long ago. If we have been living under this tyrannical censorship law in India and sticking to subjects that do not push the envelope, then the responsibility also lies on Indian film industry. Abused is as much responsible as the abuser in this case. 
 What next for you as a filmmaker? What other subjects are you looking at? 

I have just finished shooting Brown. It is a story of an illegal immigrant in America. Two other films are in development stages — Black Boots, story of first black marines which has United States Marines support, and Shopping Mall, a story on the culture of mass shootings in America.