The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) on January 25 did the unimaginable: overturn a directive from the Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to cut ten seconds of the ‘Miss You’ music video, a track by my band, Friends of Linger. In a period of around ten minutes, the FCAT watched the video, read my plea, discussed it, posed a few questions and then said my plea was okay. The four-month wait, the anxiety, stress and, at times, anger, seemed not to matter at all.
The FCAT (members include actor Poonam Dhillon and journalist Shekhar Iyer) in effect turned this tiny song into a moment that could be viewed as a shift in acceptance of ‘gay’ content in mainstream television. However small the shift might be, it could well be an indication of something bigger that many LGBTQs are hoping for. If we place this against the backdrop of hostility, hate, right-wing politics and the patiently-awaited Supreme Court verdict, the FCAT’s conclusion to overturn a CBFC order is not very small. It could be a precedent, a filmmaker out of Mumbai told me. Some gay activists felt the occasion should be celebrated and the song performed at gay parties.
The video is probably the first of its kind in the Indian context. Two men in love, the love lost to marriage and the recollection of a relationship is what made this video a story to tell. When Manav Malvai, the director, showed me the story-board, I was sure we had a sensitive script. But the CBFC thought otherwise. In response to our mid-September (2016) application, we received an A certificate. Of course, this meant that the video would never get to TV in India. I did not accept this and filed an application seeking a review.
By then what I thought was a routine affair had turned into a tedious game of waiting. When the CBFC ended our wait on October 21 with a ‘UA with cuts’ response, the institution’s stance transformed into an issue of our right to express ourselves and tell a story. What the censors found objectionable was a ten-second shot of two men – Pran Saikia and myself – lying in bed only in shorts. Mind you, we were neither making love or even hugging each other. It was a scene of separation and hardly ‘intimate’ – a word used by the CBFC.
The censors had riled me up. I felt by then a sense of discrimination as there was more than enough material on the idiot box that abused the better sense of humanity and society. Women were commoditised. Gay men were mocked at. And shows such as the Kapil Sharma Show encapsulated how insensitivity could turn into hits. There were other shows such as Emotional Atyachar too that came close to showing love-making with enough titilation. But this was between a man and a woman and not homosexual content!
By then, even sections of the press hinted that the CBFC was homophobic but this was denied. At that time, ‘Miss You’ had become incidental to what was a larger issue of acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
I was often told to be satisfied with the response from the digital world which is far more free. No doubt we had already notched up good numbers on Facebook and YouTube, and as of today have over 1.2 lakh views. But the world does not begin and end with the web. Nor was the video about how many viewed it. We were not competing with commercial music or what Bollywood churned out. It was about equal treatment and our right to share something that was true and socially relevant. It was also about being in the same spaces that were largely ‘owned’ by a society that would prefer to wish us away. In a way, I felt, we should find as many ways of reclaiming it, even if it were a small music video.
Our application to the FCAT mid November was followed by a plea in the third week of the same month. In that plea I did not hesitate from saying that I believed that the board had appeared homophobic or did not understand the narrative or the context. I urged the tribunal to ‘rise above stereotypes and phobias’.
Finally, after viewing the video, the FCAT showed a fairness that one hopes is reflective of a changing time. They used the word ‘sensitive’ to describe the video, ‘relevant’ for its content and the ten seconds that the CBFC had wanted cut as ‘intrinsic’ to the narrative.
As I heard this and felt joyous, I felt a sense of ‘we’. What mattered was that the world of LGBTQs now have a reality that is a precedent that hopefully encourages more of us to chip away – even if painfully – at the otherwise cold and hard institutions that act as ‘guardians’ of society. One never knows when they see the truth as the FCAT did this time.