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India tops list of countries 'censoring films', says new survey

The survey by Freemuse.org, an independent organization advocating and defending artistic freedom, also mentions that India accounts for a third of all documented cases of persecution and threats aimed at filmmakers and actors. 

Shriram Iyengar

It is no surprise that the buzzword of 2017 was 'censorship' and the falling standards of freedom of expression.

Led by the rantings of the infamous former Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) chairman Pahlaj Nihalani — who can forget his 'lady-orientated' remark against Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) — and the crass and ignominious protests against Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat (2018), Indian cinema suffered through constant accusations of 'offence'.

If it seemed at times that the atmosphere in the country was becoming inhospitable for daring filmmakers, a recent survey by Freemuse.org provides the statistics to back that feeling up.

Freemuse, an independent international organization 'advocating for and defending freedom of artistic expression', has put out a survey collating statistics of events suppressing creative expression.

The survey, authored by Srirak Plipal and his research team, is supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs, and Fritt Ord Norway.

The survey begins with a damning assessment: Through this comprehensive analysis we have identified 10 countries that have exhibited alarming developments in how they treat artists and their freedom of artistic expression and are ones to keep a watch on throughout 2018. These countries are: China, Cuba, India, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Poland, Spain, Venezuela and the US. (Page 8, para 3)

Of the countries listed, China, Cuba, and Venezuela are dictatorships, while Iran is a theocracy. To have India and the United States of America ranked among these countries is a marker of the change. 

S Durga filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan echoed the same sentiments when Cinestaan.com reached out to him for an opinion. "The thing is we don’t understand what we are going through," Sanal said. "I don’t think people are really aware of what is going on in the country. When we talk about freedom of expression and suppression of these rights, we look to the Middle East and China or North Korea. It is surprising to see our country, a democracy, ranked among them."

At the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) 2017 in December, actor Prakash Raj had said, "Ladies and gentlemen, yes we are in difficult times. Let’s not mince words when we see around that there is an agenda, there is a narrative which is being forced on us.... Films, creativity, thinking, free expression being stopped is the most dangerous disease a society can have."

Prakash Raj's bold statements against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government have earned him a barrage of invective from social media trolls. There has also been an increasing number of cases of filmmakers being attacked on social media for speaking their mind on issues of public importance.

The survey is even more damning in its statistics when it states that India accounted for a third of all "persecutions and threats against filmmakers, actors, and actresses, followed by the United Arab Emirates (17%) and the Philippines (12%)." (Pg 22) 

The year 2017 saw a spate of films come under the scanner of censors, official and unofficial. While films like Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017), Babumoshai Bandookbaaz (2017), S Durga (2017) and Padmaavat (2018) faced a long struggle with the CBFC, there was also growing pressure from external sources.

Political parties, the government, and sundry religious authorities have begun to claim 'offence' against films and filmmakers. While Deepika Padukone was threatened with beheading, Sanjay Leela Bhansali was assaulted on the sets of his film, and even CBFC chief Prasoon Joshi faced threats from the Rajput Karni Sena after the board certified Padmaavat for release. 

Padmaavat row: Buses burnt in Noida, women in Chittorgarh seek permission 'to end lives'

Not even documentaries were left alone. Fear of government pressure led to documentaries In The Shade Of The Fallen Chinar (a film on Kashmir's art revival amidst the militancy), The Unbearable Being Of Lightness (a documentary on the late Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula), March-March-March (based on the JNU protests) and Muhajir (a documentary on the growing separatist movement in Kashmir) were denied screening at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival in Thiruvananthapuram in June 2017.

In The Shade Of The Fallen Chinar was also denied screening space at the Mumbai International Film Festival as recently as January. 

Filmmaker Sudhir Mishra is familiar with this growing unrest among those in power against films. Speaking to Cinestaan.com about the survey, he said, "I am just saying it is not merely about films... I think you are creating an atmosphere of fear which is not good. The maturity of any democracy and the growth of a nation is through free-flowing discussions where people are allowed to state their views, and people have the ability to listen to a contrary point of view. If you lose that facility, then you are in deep trouble." 

Incidentally, one of the films that ignited the debate on the issue was Sanal Sasidharan's S Durga. The film (initially titled Sexy Durga), along with Ravi Jadhav's Nude, was removed from the line-up for the Indian Panorama at the International Film Festival of India 2017 by the Union information and broadcasting ministry. As a protest, several members of the jury led by director Sujoy Ghosh and writers Gyan Correa and Apurva Asrani resigned from their positions. Despite the Kerala high court directing the festival to screen the film, the I&B ministry chose to play a cat-and-mouse game to avoid obeying the court.

Sexy Durga review: Captures every woman's fear of the man's world around her

Sanal's film also underwent a lengthy battle with the CBFC over the name and its content and was only passed by the board after the filmmaker took the issue again to the high court. The film is finally ready to be released on 6 April.

In his conversation with Cinestaan.com, Sanal said, "Rulers have always wanted to curb freedom of expression, whether it is films, or now, Facebook and online expression. It is the people that need to change."

Sanal's views are echoed in the survey's notes that say: "Claims of preserving cultural values and preventing religious uprisings were used excessively by censors to justify violation of artistic freedom. This seemingly encouraged far-right caste groups to take action towards stalling film releases, threatening and attacking filmmakers in the course of the year. Although some censored films were eventually cleared for screening, the sector’s creativity was largely undermined." (Pg 61) 

The State of Artistic Freedom Survey 2018 also ranks India on top with the most 'censorship' cases, with 20% of all films, followed by Turkey (9%), Pakistan (9%), Lebanon (8%), France (7%) and China (6%). Among the cases of censorship through 2017-18, 86% were against filmmakers. Even more surprising, 91% of all documented violations were by 'government authorities (55%) and non-state actors (36%), and religious authorities'. (Pg 61)

Religious dogma also affects the rise of women in the arts. While last year saw an increasing number of women filmmakers like Alankrita Shrivastava and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari find mass approval, the survey paints a different figure. According to statistics, India ranks among the top six countries where women are denied the rights to artistic freedom. Others on the list are Iran, Israel, Egypt, France and Lebanon. (Pg 14) 

In an interview with Cinestaan.com in March 2017, director Shrivastava had hit out, saying, "If a few people might want to watch some alternative point of view, why stop them? They are feeling so threatened that it will disrupt this huge patriarchal order. And this is a colonized mindset that Indians are not mature enough to understand. Why is the rest of the world mature to understand a film and not Indians?" 

The rationale for this suppression also points to two key elements — religion and indecency. Almost 70% of cases against women artistes were filed under the pretext of 'indecency' while religion accounted for 28% of them. (Pg 14)

While there have been arguments saying this is done keeping the sentiments of the majority in mind, Sudhir Mishra's rebuttal is strong. The director, who faced the wrath of protestors for his film Dharavi (1991), said, "There has to be a balance between what the public wants and what the filmmaker knows. It is the job of an artist to not hide what he knows. How does he offer new things to the public? By breaking their expectations." 

The expectations are not the only thing that need to be broken. According to Sanal, the public perception of 'censorship' also needs to change. "The mentality to censor is only there because they feel that they [the authorities] have the approval of the public," he said. "The public at large still believes that censoring is an essential thing before a film is released. The public mindset needs to change, and that is the problem."

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Censorship Intolerance