The Red-Letter Day Is Here
On June 16, The International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala was inaugurated by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in Thiruvananthapuram. This festival is organised by the Kerala State Chalachithra Academy, a body under the state government’s Department of Cultural Affairs [Indian Express]
 
What is the Controversy About?
Two hundred short films are to be screened at the festival, out of which three documentary films have not been granted an exemption certificate by the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. No specific reason has been given by the Ministry for not granting the exemption certificate. The only possible reason according to the Chalachithra Academy is that, these are based on recent national controversies and speak of the level of intolerance in the country
 
Please Note
Films screened at film festivals do not require a certificate from the Censor Board, but they must have a censor exemption certificate from the Ministry. Without censor exemption, no documentary or feature film can be screened at a festival
 
Which Are These Controversial Films?
The three films denied permission to be screened include, 'The Unbearable Being of Lightness', a 45-minute documentary on the Dalit research scholar Rohithh Vemula, whose suicide sparked pan-India protests, 'March March March', a 19-minute short on the 2016 campus protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and 'In The Shade of Fallen Chinar', a 16-minute film on the lives of a group of young Kashmiri artists who are university students
 
As per Schedule...
The films were set to be showcased on the five-day of the 10th International Documentary Short Film Festival, 2017. The filmmakers and those associated with the films still have hope that the films will get screened. Here is what they have to say,
 
Ramchandra PN, Director - The Unbearable Being of Lightness
 [To watch the film, click here]

“I did not choose this topic, the topic chose me. I was about to conduct a documentary workshop at the Communication School at Hyderabad University when the Rohithh Vemula incident happened. Protests followed, and while conducting the workshop, I knew that I had to react to his death in some way or the other. And I started documenting the workshop on my camera. I knew Rohith would find a space in the workshop sooner or later.  I have taken up the issue on social media and also uploaded the film online. Anybody interested can watch it and I am also planning to hold private screenings without censorship. If the screening as per schedule does not happen, there could be possibilities that these films would have private screenings at a different venue, during the same time.” [Times of India], [Sabrangindia]
 
Since when did Rohith Vemula become Anti National?
After the ‘systemic suicide’ of Rohith Vemula, a Phd student from Hyderabad Central University, who succumbed to the incessant discrimination, but still lives as a hero in the hearts of many, some termed him as ‘Anti National.’ An excerpt of what his mother , Radhika Vemula said to answer these people is something the entire nation must remember,
 
"I want to meet Smriti Irani and ask her 'On what basis did you declare my son to be anti-national? Your Ministry had written that my Rohith and other Dalit students were anti-national extremists. You said that he is not a Dalit. You accused him of getting a false certificate. Should I say it is because you got false certificates for your educational qualifications that you think others do so too? You stopped my son's stipend, you got him suspended from the university. You are the Minister for HRD, but you have no value for education. You can never understand how difficult it is for a Dalit to reach the stage of doing his PhD. You can never imagine the hardship, the struggle, the tears and sacrifice to reach that position. In three months, you destroyed what it had taken me 26 years to build. I am talking about my Rohith, he died at the age of 26.'" [Sabrangindia]

 
Kathu Lukose, Director - March March March
[To watch the film, click here]

“My film is a critical showcasing of the protests that happened in JNU between February and September 2016. The 18-minute-long documentary develops through interviews, news materials and footage of public meetings and protests. 
All this happened while I was pursuing my Masters in Arts and Aesthetics at JNU. I documented the protests and have taken an anti-fascist approach in my film as the entire campus was labelled anti-national.
There is a certain pattern to these bans, and it's quite evident that this is part of the Central Government's propaganda to curtail the freedom of expression in artistic and cultural platforms.” [Times of India]
 
Fazil NC and Shawn Sebastian, Directors - In the Shade of Fallen Chinar
[To watch the film, click here]

“Our film is a visual documentation of how art is evolving around the famous fallen Chinar tree in the University of Kashmir campus, amidst the tense situation prevailing in Kashmir. The students of the university are creating a new culture with their powerful stories of art, music and resistance. The film brings to light the lives of the artists in a State where cultural emergency is at its peak.” [Times of India]
 
The Subject of the Film is Sensitive.’ Really?
The authorities, the CBFC, fail to understand that deliberation is what will enable solutions. These issues are of national importance. Thus, everyone must have the right to ponder over them, deliberate them. Banning films will not silence anyone. Certainly not the one who are right. Maybe, it is jst the authorities who are sensitive?
 
What the Academy Members have to say
Academy chairman Kamal said, “We had sent all 200-odd films to the Ministry seeking censor exemption. All the films, except these three, got exemption. The Ministry hasn’t cited any reason for denying censor exemption for these films, which are based on socially relevant themes. I think these films were denied screening permission because they deal with intolerance in the country. We have moved an appeal, asking the Ministry to consider the plea seeking censor exemption again. We are yet to get a reply.”  [Times of India]

News agencies further reported that he said, "We are going through an undeclared emergency in the country. What we should eat, what we should wear, what we should talk all this is being decided by the ruling dispensation."  [Indian Express]
Officially, according to the academy, they haven't given any reason for the denial. The themes of all the three films here that are being denied screening seem to be contentious for the present regime. 

The Academy’s Vice-Chairperson Bina Paul Venugopal said, “We are in our 10th edition and this is the first time that the ministry has denied a film censor exemption certificate. The films were not blindly chosen. We set up a committee that sees the films and recommends." [News 18]
 
Petition Filed In Kerala HC Against Centre’s Denial of Permission To Screen
The Petitioner, Ms. Kathu Lokuse, through her petition, challenges the denial of exemption under Section 9 of the Cinematograph Act, 1952 as “arbitrary, unconstitutional and against the ends of justice.” Section 9 of the Act empowers the Central Government to exempt any film from the process of certification

The petition to the Kerala High Court may be read here
 
What does Section 9 of the Cinematograph Act say
Section 9. Power to exempt - The Central Government may, by order in writing exempt, subject to such conditions and restrictions, if any, as it may impose, the exhibition of any film or class of films from any of the provisions of this Part or of any rules made there under.


 
A protest letter
Has been signed by 160 filmmakers from across the country, has also been sent to I&B Minister Mr. M. Venkaiah Naidu. The letter reportedly calls the ban on these film screenings “draconian” and states, “A brief perusal of the themes of the films denied screening – the suicide of research scholar Rohith Vemula, on artists in Kashmir, and on the student protests at JNU – indicates that each one of these films is dealing with prominent political issues that have led to much discussion within the country. It is also clear that the government of the day is resorting to draconian action to stifle all such political debate and indeed Article 19 of our constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression to every citizen of this country.  We also note that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has not given any reason for its withholding of screening permission.”...
 
Is This the First Time?
Certainly, not. The Ruling Governments even in the past have restricted, constrained media from releasing movies/ plays/ articles which differ from their political ideology, hence, create a spoke in the wheel for their propaganda. [Sabrangindia]
  • It began in the 1950s when, Aubrey Menon's O Rama was targeted for fundamentalist attack by Hindu chauvinist sections in India
  • In 1970s Jesus Christ Superstar, a fictionalised biography of Jesus, on the stage and films was similarly targeted
  • Ghashiram Kotwal, a Marathi play written by playwright, Vijay Tendulkar in 1972 as a response to the rise of a local political party, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra was banned in 1974
  • The Central Government, under Indira Gadhi, banned Kishore Kumar’s songs from AIR and Doordarshan from May 4, 1976 till the end of the Emergency for his refusal to perform at a Congress rally in Mumbai.
  • Notably, the 1977 political satire, Kissa Kursi Ka, produced by Janata Party MP Amrit Nahata, was banned. But the film's ban also signalled the beginning of the end of Sanjay Gandhi's reign. It landed Sanjay Gandhi and then I&B minister VC Shukla in an 11-month long legal case for destroying all the prints and the master-print of the film. Ironically, the present BJP Government, which back then stood for freedom of expression is throttling the freedom of the Indian populous to express itself.
  • In 1989, Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses generated worldwide furore, a price was put on Rushdie’s head; the author has since been forced into a life in hiding ever since. 
  • 1990 0nwards, a documentary film by Anand Patwardhan: Ram Ke Naam that severely critiques the Ramjanmabhoomi movement has faced severe slack. Public showings of the film have often been marred by violence and the filmmaker subjected to violent threats from various wings of the Hindutva brigade. The apathy is that the Director, Anand Patwardhan has always faced the ruling Government’s opposition. For every screening on Doordarshan, he is forced to approach the court
  • In 1993, activists and MLAs of the Jharkand Mukti Morcha threaten Sunil Gangopadhyay for his book, Prothom Aalo for “uncondonable derogatory references to Goddess Kali” [Sabrangindia]
Propaganda or Truth?!
All governments across the political spectrum at the Centre and at the State levels have promoted and used censorship to silence voices of dissent. They have also tacitly or openly supported vigilante attacks on freedom of expression, or not taken strict action against acts of vandalism, disruption and intimidation. With the return of the BJP government at the Centre in 2014, vigilante censorship has become increasingly strident and omnipresent. Many publishers have pulped their books because they ‘offended’ the majoritarian sensibilities; some books are being withdrawn in an act of self-regulation. [Sabrangindia]
  • Deepa Mehta's film, Fire was banned in 1996. Though it garnered a lot of critical acclaim worldwide it failed to impress Hindu groups (like Shiv Sena) within India, due to its subject of lesbian relationship between two sisters-in-law in a Hindu family
  • Black Friday, banned in 2004, was adapted from the famous book Black Friday - The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts by S Hussain Zaidi. Anurag Kashyap's movie was considered too dark to be released in India. The movie faced a stay order from The Bombay High Court because the 1993 Bombay blasts case and remained slated-to-release until the trial got over.
  • In 2005, Parzania which cut open the wounds of Gujarat's scarred past, received backlash and appreciation in equal amounts. The film was based on a superb plot which revolved around a boy called Azhar who goes missing during the Gujarat riots in the year 2002.  The film was fiercely banned even though it won a National Award. Its cinematic excellence was not considered enough for political parties to let it screen in Gujarat, hence, it was fiercely banned.
  • Firaaq, another film to deal with the Gujarat riots, reportedly based on true incidents which happened in the riot-torn Gujarat, was banned in 2008.  Nandita Das was widely criticised for hurting the sentiments of Hindus and Muslims. But what came as a major achievement was the fact that the movie finally saw a release date and upon its release, garnered rave reviews from critics and audiences alike.
  • In 2010, Inshallah, Football – Not Every Kashmiri is a Terrorist, is a documentary about a Kashmiri boy who aspires to travel abroad and become a famous footballer someday. This film was intended to bring out the problems civilians face due to the insurgencies and militancy in the Kashmir Valley, but the purpose was defeated as it was denied the necessary censor certificate because of its sensitive subject.
  • Unfreedom, the most recent one to join this long list of banned movies in India, in 2015, is a modern-day thriller which talks about a lesbian love story entangled within an Islamic terrorism-related angle. Bringing together two 'taboos' in one package, the Censor Board could not digest the nudity and the lovemaking scenes between the two protagonists. Reports also suggest that the movie was accused of “igniting unnatural passions" and hence was denied release in India, except for a few states. [Scoop Whoop]
Creative Freedom Breathing Its Last under Present Government
These films have been banned and today the films continue to face the same fate. This may not go unnoticed but nobody does to anything about it. If we boast about the Freedom of Speech and Expression in India, we can only moan about its poor implementation. What the authorities fail to realise is that, it is not the issues that are sensitive but the mindset of those in power.
 
  • As Kathu Lokuse correctly identified; the bans have a pattern, the pattern is evident. There is no point in turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to this gross violation of fundamental rights of Indians.
  • The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII, Pune), is going may be pushed off the cliff. The Indian Express reported on June 14, that a committee, led by NITI Ayog and Prime Minister's Office (PMO) officials, has scanned 114 bodies in the first phase of their review of autonomous bodies constituted under Societies Registration Act. Among these are, FTII, Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute and the Delhi Public Library will be corporatised whereas the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi will be merged with either Jamia Milia Islamia or Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
  • Scroll reports that the alleged 'reduction', as put by the government, is a euphemism for merging these institutes with others or winding them up in their entirety.
  • The term of Gajendra Chauhan as Chairman of FTII ended in March 2017. Back on January 7, 2016 when he was appointed, several student agitations had surfaced seeking his removal. The students took to a 139 day strike in retaliation. Several students were detained by the police. With every passing day, the individuality and liberty of the students is being curtailed. The latest move to privatize the film institute seems to be a garb for closing it down.
  • Pahlaj Nihalani, the Chief of the Central Board of Film Certification has often been criticised for his politically-motivated decisions. The Udta Punjab case is well known. He has called himself a “proud Modi chamcha”. In such a scenario, what can one make of Nihalani clamping down on a documentary film that does not propagate the ideology of the ruling Government? Since when did freedom of expression become subject to the reasonable restriction of “agreement of the ruling Government?” [The Wire]
  •  The use of draconian laws such as Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000, and Section 124A in The Indian Penal Code (on sedition) over the past few years, point to the further shrinking of the space for dissent and criticism of the State within public discourse. This trend of increasing State and vigilante attacks on freedom of expression however do not appear to have stopped documentary filmmakers from producing work that challenges the dominant flows of power and are inserted into various democratic struggles. [Sabrangindia]
What to Expect Over The Next Few Days