We are all more than familiar with the Central Board for Film Certification’s (CBFC) notoriety, which only seems to have gotten worse in the last few years. From demanding almost hundred cuts in a film that addresses Punjab’s rampant drug abuse to refusing to certify Lipstick Under My Burkha for its “sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography”, it seems like this film certification authority and the government are both threatened by anything even remotely thought-provoking or challenging of the current status-quo. Over the years many films, both Indian and international, have found themselves struggling to make it past what the CBFC, and by extension, the government thinks is ‘appropriate’ for public viewing. The problem, however, is in our constitution – the same document that guarantees freedom of expression.
The structure of censorship as understood today can be traced back to the Cinematograph Act of 1952 which allows for a government-appointed body of individuals to certify films based on certain ambiguous guidelines that have only been added to over the years. These guidelines are vague and conveniently (mis)interpreted depending on the government in power. Theoretically, the CBFC is only a certification body. However, without a CBFC certificate, essentially, a film remains banned as it cannot be screened anywhere.
With the coming in of online streaming platforms, like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which are outside the gamut of CBFC’s jurisdiction, evading censorship has become much easier. Yet, these OTT platforms do not have the kind of mass-appeal that a big screen does and so, the tussle with the Censor board continues for those trying to find a space Indian cinema. While many filmmakers have given in by aligning themselves with the government’s skewed moralistic standards, there are many that have refused to compromise with their art. And to this date, their films remain buried and in some cases, even destroyed, away from the public’s eye.
A stalwart of filmmaking, Satyajit Ray’s films have left an indelible mark in the history Indian cinema, despite the state’s occasional interference. In 1975, Ray’s Sikkim – a documentary film that captured the lives of the people of Sikkim, a state that was once sovereign – was banned by the Government of India, just around the time Sikkim was being integrated with India. Commissioned by the then Chogyal (King) of Sikkim, the documentary was released in 1971 and managed to have two public screenings before the ban was imposed. The ban was lifted only recently in 2010 by the Ministry of External Affairs. A candid exploration of the culture of Sikkim, it’s Ray’s only documentary film that was shot without a script.
Directed by a Janata Party MP Amrit Nahata, Kissa Kursi Ka was a satirical masterpiece that targeted the inadequacies of the Congress Party – particularly the mother-son duo, Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. The film released in 1977. Especially in the aftermath of the Emergency, the film severely threatened the integrity of the party and was subsequently banned by the Congress government. Party supporters too went berserk and were seen burning prints and copies of Kissa Kursi Ka. However, despite the attacks, the film was eventually released in the same year after the Government changed. Even today, the film is known for its humorous comment on the political chaos and corruption that is often associated with the Indian bureaucratic system.
In June 2018, the trailer for Mira Nair’s 1996 Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love made the record for the most viewed trailer on Youtube, after the trailer of Avengers and Star Wars. Loosely based on a short story by Urdu writer Wajida Tabassum, the film is the story of two close friends who, upon reaching an age of sexual maturity, are forced to deal with the cruel politics of ‘lust’. Deriving its name from the ancient Hindu text ‘Kamasutra’, the film thematically deals with concepts like caste hierarchy, monogamy, revenge, sexual violence, with sex being the common link between them all. Owing to the obviously controversial and explicit nature of the film, Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love was banned in not just India, but the neighbouring country of Pakistan as well.
Known to make some of the most gritty and realistic Bollywood films like Gangs of Wasseypur, Dev D., and Black Friday (another extremely controversial film), Anurag Kashyap’s films are never a light watch. From exploring the dark underbelly of our country to producing some really thought-provoking films, he’s done it all. However, not all his films have escaped the unnecessary scrutiny of the Censor board. In 2001, Kashyap’s Paanch – the story of 4 friends who, in the haze of drugs and alcohol, end up murdering one of their own – was prevented from releasing as the CBFC did not deem the film’s depiction of substance abuse fit for the big screen. After much back and forth, the film was eventually cleared for release after compliance to CBFC’s guidelines in 2001, but due to other issues. It still wasn’t released and till this date remains a mystery for all Kashyap fans out there.
Whether it’s through his activism or his filmmaking, Sridhar Rangayan has been fighting the LGBTQ+ fight for as long as I can remember. In 2003, he made The Pink Mirror – India’s first ever film to feature transexuals in lead roles. A ‘bollywood-style’ short film that tells the story of two drag queens and a teenage boy, The Pink Mirror has been appreciated across the globe but not in India. Considering the country’s general attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community and given CBFC’s track record, it is no surprise that the film was denied clearance three times before Rangayan finally gave up. However, 15 years later, thanks to the internet, the film has managed to bypass CBFC and is now streaming online.
The film can be viewed on Netflix.
Based on the real-life story of a young Parsi boy, Azhar, who went missing after the Godhra riots of 2002, Parzania was one of the many films that continue to provide retrospective insight into the kind of political tensions that are visible in the country even today. Despite being appreciated on a national scale, the political parties back home (one in particular) were not very comfortable with it. In 2007, Parzania was released nationwide, barring the state of Gujarat, as many feared ‘backlash’. The film was also attacked by religious outfits like Bajrang Dal.
Cinema is a powerful tool of expression, especially when it comes to politics, and Indian filmmakers have always tried to make use of that. In 2008, Nandita Das’s Firaaq, her directorial debut, dealt with the aftermath of the Godhra riots of 2002. Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Sanjay Suri, Raghubir Yadav, Tisca Chopra and many more, the film digs into the lives of the common people in the aftermath of a tragedy that affected thousands. Despite its relevance, the film was banned in Gujarat – the state where the Godhra riots took place in 2002. Of course, this did not affect the film as much. Even today, it is a renowned gem of Hindi cinema and has managed to bag three international film awards.
Leslie Udwin’s documentary on one of the most harrowing sexual assault cases in India, the 2012 Delhi Gangrape as it is popularly known, was a part of BBC’s Storyville series and explores the case through diverse narratives. Initially expected to be broadcast on 8 March 2015, the film never truly saw the light of day – at least not in India. Upon finding out that the film featured an interview with one of the convicted rapists, the government was quick to ban the film in India. However, the film was released outside India and was even uploaded on Youtube and went viral for a little while before that was also taken down. From allegations of being made without the Government’s approval to concerns about the perpetrator’s comments sparking unrest, the reasons for the ban are many.
You can view the film trailer here.
Labelled as a ‘propaganda’ piece, the BBC documentary titled ‘India: The Modi Question’ seeks to examine evidence behind the political leader’s role in 2002 Gujarat riots that left over a thousand dead. The documentary uncovers facts based on rigorous research and a number of voices chiming in with diverse political affiliations. Going over the track record of Narendra Modi's government following his re-election in 2019, they dissect a number of controversial policies including removal of Article 370, CAA, and the treatment of India’s Muslim minorities. The Indian government has invoked emergency laws to block the documentary in the country but unauthorised video clips have been circulating on social media.
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