Suman Ghosh, a National Award-winning filmmaker and a professor of development economics at Florida Atlantic University, first bumped into censorship troubles with his documentary on Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) – or the ‘Censor Board’ – in Kolkata suggested six cuts (“Gujarat”, “in India”, “Hindu”, “cow”, “these days”, and “Hindutva”). Ghosh appealed the decision, met with the CBFC chairperson Prasoon Joshi, and the film was cleared with one cut (“Gujarat”).
So, when Ghosh approached the Censor Board in 2019 with his Hindi fictional feature, Aadhaar, produced by Jio Studios and Drishyam Films, he was apprehensive. But the CBFC just objected to a few expletives; the makers accepted the changes and got a censor certificate. They released the trailer on YouTube in January 2021 with a release date: February 5, 2021. Set in the Jharkhand village of Jamua in 2010, Aadhaar tells the story of Pharsua (Vineet Kumar Singh) who, after volunteering to become the first person in the village to enroll for the Aadhaar card, finds out from a local priest that the serial number on it will cause the death of his wife. Pharusa, then, tries to get his Aadhaar number changed, but his pleas go unattended.
After the trailer’s release, Ghosh got a call from Jio Studios informing him that the officials from the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a statutory body managing the Aadhaar card programme, had seen the film and suggested 28 cuts. Ghosh didn’t get a formal letter, or anything else, from the UIDAI. Over a phone call, a studio executive listed out the cuts. Out of 28, Ghosh remembers three: a line of dialogue “Main Aadhaar hun” (referring to a 1989 Amitabh Bachchan starrer, Main Azaad Hoon), a scene where a villager wonders whether the government will now enter their bathrooms impinging on their privacies, and another where an old man wants to get his cataract removed for Aadhaar’s biometrics. Ghosh then found out that the release had been stalled. Its trailer? Disappeared from YouTube. He had no idea how — or why.
“I thought it was standard procedure that, after the Censor [evaluation], if the government finds something objectionable, then there’s a process to it,” says Ghosh over a phone call from Kolkata. But the UIDAI is not a legal part of the Indian film certification process, which is controlled by the CBFC that had cleared the film. Ghosh didn’t know about it then; he thought like the cuts imposed on his Sen documentary, he could discuss and resolve the problem. “But then I realised I wasn’t privy to the discussion at all,” he says. “Jio Studios was trying to cooperate with the UIDAI, but it was getting stalled month after month after month.”
Around the same time, he heard about the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021 — allowing the Centre to order recertification of censor-certified films following the receipt of complaints — which created a rippling furore, resulting in noted Indian filmmakers writing an open letter to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. “It was then I realised that [the UIDAI’s intrusion] was illegal to begin with,” he says. “That clarified why a written explanation was never given to me.”
Ghosh wrote to the UIDAI’s CEO and made calls, wanting to follow the due process. He got no response. In fact, he got the confirmation about the screening and cuts from a recent Times of India report that quoted a UIDAI official in Delhi. In the absence of any formal written communication — not even from his producers — Ghosh feels helpless. Helpless but not hopeless. “My film is a celebration of India in all its vicissitudes,” he says. “So, I’m sure that there’s some mistake somewhere — somebody lower down is worried that this film might be offensive.”
The UIDAI diktats are even more surprising to Ghosh, because he considers his film “pro-Aadhaar”. A light-hearted comedy that highlights the problems of implementing government policies in a developing country. “I was confident, and I’m still confident, that if I’m given a voice, I’ll be able to convey [my points],” he adds. “I’m pleading to the government, ‘Please give me a chance to express my feelings.’”
After months of exasperation and official silence – eventually coming to a discomfiting realisation that, as a director and a writer, he has no say in his own film – Ghosh is compelled to reflect on the ironic intersection of the real and the reel. “I’ve become like the character of my film who is pleading to get attention,” he says. “It’s the same plot line, where I’m appealing to this and that body, and nobody is listening.”
Another layer of irony supplements this incident: the UIDAI, often attracting criticism for imperiling individual privacies, is disregarding a filmmaker’s freedom of expression. It also baffles Ghosh that the UIDAI has not seen Aadhaar in the right context. One of its objections, for instance, states that the film doesn’t depict the updated biometric recognition system. But it’s set in 2010, when Aadhaar’s implementation had just begun. “So, if I’m criticising any government,” he says, “it’s the UPA government.”
A simple question underpins the whole problem: if the UIDAI doesn’t have film censorship powers, and if the CBFC has already cleared the movie, then why not just release it? “That is not in my hands,” Ghosh says. This reporter wrote to Jio Studios and Drishyam Films seeking a clarification but got no response. The Wire also contacted five UIDAI officials, including the CEO’s office, asking, “Given that the UIDAI has never been a part of the film certification process, why does it now want to suggest cuts to a film?” No response.
The Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021 is yet to become an Act, but this muzzling of Aadhaar exemplifies the opaqueness and perils of such an outcome: a Central authority scrutinising a film to suit its parochial interests, issuing stifling directives, and squashing any scope of open discussions. “First of all, I need to see what they’re objecting,” Ghosh says. In 2021, a film has become an orphan – or a ping-pong ball shuttling between two contrasting players: the producers who presumably don’t want to upset the central government and a statutory body asserting its weight by breaching its ambit of power.