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Messing with reality

Fiction-film censorship is talked about more, but documentaries get just as raw a deal

A still from ‘An Insignificant Man’.
A still from ‘An Insignificant Man’.

Non-fiction film has, arguably, a tougher time with the censors than fiction film. Because censorship is state-controlled, it has always been difficult for documentarians in this country to make politically charged works. Yet the censorship of non-fiction film can be for a variety of reasons, from changing political realities to excessive moral caution.

Char Shahar Ek Kahani (1968)

It was a documentary that led to one of the few challenges to the legality of pre-censorship in this country. This short film by K.A. Abbas was awarded an A certificate by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for showing scenes involving prostitution. Abbas appealed this decision in the Supreme Court, then amended his petition to challenge pre-censorship as impinging on his freedom of expression. The court ruled against him, but the judgement led to the formation of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), a quasi-judicial body to whom one can appeal against CBFC decisions.

Sikkim (1971)

One Satyajit Ray film which almost didn’t see the light of day was Sikkim (1971), funded by the chogyal (ruler) of the then kingdom and his wife. Sikkim became a part of India in 1975 and the film was suppressed, remaining in the vaults till 2010—because it showed Sikkim as a monarchy. “It’s not a very logical reason for banning the film," Ray told biographer Andrew Robinson, “because after all it shows Sikkim at a certain point in history."

Bhopal: Beyond Genocide (1986)

For documentarians in the 1980s and 1990s, a screening on Doordarshan offered a chance to reach a larger-than-usual audience. Yet the state-controlled channel also represented another layer of censorship, as Tapan Bose found out when his documentary Beyond Genocide was denied permission to screen on the grounds that it lacked moderation and the matter of compensation for the victims was subjudice. The case reached the Supreme Court, which ordered Doordarshan to screen the film, noting: “Freedom to air one’s views is the lifeline of any democratic institution and any attempt to stifle, suffocate or gag this right would sound a death-knell to democracy."

War And Peace (2002)

Anand Patwardhan, whose subjects have included the Emergency (Prisoners Of Conscience), religious fundamentalism (Ram Ke Naam) and caste violence (Jai Bhim Comrade), might be independent India’s most censored director. War And Peace, a documentary about the 1998 nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan, had to fight to release it in its complete form. The CBFC denied the film a certificate for a year and a half. The revising committee then asked for 21 cuts, citing “law and order", until the FCAT reduced that to two cuts and one addition.

An Insignificant Man (2017)

In a demand that illustrates the nature of the Pahlaj Nihalani-chaired censor board of 2015-17, the CBFC asked film-makers Vinay Shukla and Khushboo Ranka to get a “no-objection certificate" from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal before their film on the 2013 Delhi election could be certified. The FCAT quashed this request, and the film released in November. The protracted battle over the film’s release served as another cautionary tale for those looking to release documentaries in Indian theatres.

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