Mumbai: On January 29, a 16-minute documentary was scheduled to screen at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). Made by Shawn Sebastian and Fazil N.C., In the Shade of Fallen Chinar, centred on young artists in the Kashmir Valley, had been selected in the National Competition category of the festival. That information was on the festival’s website, newsletters, and catalogue; a sizeable audience had come for the screening.
But the film didn’t start on time. The reason first given for the delay was “technical problem”, but when pressed further, the MIFF officials said that the documentary didn’t get censor exemption from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B). For a film to screen at an Indian film festival, it either needs a censor certificate (from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)) or censor exemption. The ministry had denied censor exemption to a film playing at a festival organised by the Films Division, a film production house under the aegis of the ministry itself.
“For us it was humiliating because we were the official guests,” said Sebastian. “We had spread the word, made efforts to come here. If they were withdrawing [the film] they should have told us a week ago.” The ministry invoked section 9 of the Cinematograph Act, which includes “policy for certification of films for film festivals”, to deny censor exemption to In the Shade of Fallen Chinar.
One of its guidelines states, “In exceptional cases, the Ministry of I&B will have the powers to reject, for reasons to be recorded in writing, the request for exemption to any film(s) if, in its opinion, it would impinge on the security or integrity of the country or affect law and order or affect relations with other countries.” But the filmmakers got no written response.
This hasn’t happened for the first time. In June 2017, the ministry had denied censor exemption to three documentaries – March March March (on the protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University in February 2016), The Unbearable Being of Lightness (on the aftermath of Rohith Vemula’s suicide) and In the Shade of Fallen Chinar – selected to play at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK) without a reason.
This case reveals parallels with another film festival concluded recently which, much like MIFF, is run by the ministry: the International Film Festival of India (IFFI). In November 2017, three jury members of the festival’s Indian Panorama section, including the chairman Sujoy Ghosh, resigned because the two films selected by the jury, Sexy Durga and Nude, were dropped from the lineup without informing them.
The members of MIFF’s two-tier selection committee – regional and national – weren’t notified of the exclusion of In the Shade of Fallen Chinar, either. “If the film has gone through the first and second levels, has been approved [by the selection committee members], and even then it’s not shown, then we’re protesting against that,” said Anupama Srinivasan, the selection committee member of the north zone. “We’re standing with the filmmakers because this is clearly censorship.” Besides, since Films Division comes under the Ministry of I&B, so, said Srinivasan, “it’s like the government not giving the permission to the government”.
On February 1, the members of the selection committee wrote a letter to the Director General of Films Division, Manish Desai, stating that they were “deeply perturbed” that the documentary, “officially selected for National Competition”, wasn’t screened at the festival. It also said that the selection committee did not receive “any official intimation about the reasons for not screening the film” and that a “festival like MIFF should stand for the freedom of expression of filmmakers and not succumb to any attempts at censorship”. The letter ended by requesting “MIFF to schedule a public screening of the film during the festival”.
The next afternoon, on February 2, filmmakers, selection committee members, and cinephiles assembled at Films Division, also the venue of MIFF, to protest against the ministry’s decision. The memorandum, signed by 123 members, called the ministry’s decision “arbitrary”, noting that it was “not an isolated incident” as the film was also debarred at IDSFFK last year. “By negatively invoking the power under the Cinematograph Act, the ministry is politicising an important cultural event,” read a part of the memorandum. “We view political interference in such matters as very grave especially in the context of contemporary events affecting the cultural scenario.”
Also read: Unprecedented, Unconstitutional Action by I&B Ministry to Remove Two Films From IFFI List: ‘S Durga’ Director
Present at the venue, and leading the protest, was filmmaker Anand Pathwardhan, who is no stranger to long battles against censorship, including at MIFF. In 2003, Patwardhan and other documentary filmmakers protested against a new rule in MIFF: that all Indian films playing at the festival should have a censor certificate. (The foreign films were exempted from this restriction.) When more than 275 filmmakers organised a Campaign Against Censorship and threatened to boycott the festival, the censor certificate condition was withdrawn.
But for its next edition, MIFF rejected 30 documentaries – many of them on thorny issues of caste, gender, sexuality, environment, and communalism (including Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, a film on the 2002 Gujarat riots). The aggrieved filmmakers, in response, held parallel screenings of rejected films at a different venue, calling their festival Vikalp: Films for Freedom. Over the last several years though, a censor certificate or censor exemption (whose guidelines were formulated in January 2006) has become a mandatory requirement for a film festival screening.
In the Shade of Fallen Chinar, available on YouTube since August 2016, is a spunky piece of resistance. It features a photojournalist, musicians, and students of the University of Kashmir, discussing the conflict in the valley and how they’ve found solace in art. Giving voice to the anger, frustration, and helplessness of young Kashmiris, the documentary is a slice of Indian life that most Indians are unaware of. A rap song, by a musician called Muazzam Bhat, opens the documentary:
“Nobody believed in me
Nobody to trust me
It feels like every single cop
Is out here to bust me
But the truth is that they ain’t got no courtesy to address me
They can barge in my house anytime and arrest me
Without any warrant or a government document
What I’m trying to narrate is every Kashmiri’s predicament.”
The documentary also has students talking about the University of Kashmir, which “doesn’t give vent to students: both in literal and artistic forms” – student unions and political activism have been virtually banned on campus for the past many years. Another musician, Ali Safiuddin, talks about the rich tradition of Kashmiri folk music and wonders about the possibilities of a “jazz or a punk scene, or an art exhibition” – desires that will probably remain unfulfilled. “If I want to talk about politically charged things, if I want to talk about the government, how people are subjugated, then rap is a perfect genre,” says Bhat at another point in the documentary. “Now I want to vent my anger out through my song, through my music.”
The voices of Bhat, Safiuddin, and the students of the University of Kashmir – caught in the crossfire between the Indian state and militants – deserve to be heard by the rest of the country. “They [the ministry] are treating Kashmir as if it’s not part of India,” said Patwardhan. “If Kashmir is a part of India, then the people of Kashmir have the right to speak, and we’ve the right to hear them.”
Also read: High on Patriotism, Low on Artistic Freedom – When the National Anthem Played 37 Times a Day at IFFI 2017
If the CBFC, also controlled by the Ministry of I&B, has a reputation for unfairly deciding the fates of commercial films, then the ministry, especially over the last two-and-a-half years, has directly and actively clamped down on independent and art-house films that don’t align with the ideologies of the ruling party. By regularly implementing the authoritarian clauses in Cinematograph Act’s section 9 to deny censor exemption, or by last-minute interventions overriding the decisions of independent juries, the ministry has interfered in at least five film festivals, suspending screenings of eight films. Some directors have challenged the ministry’s decisions, moving the courts, which didn’t find anything objectionable in their films: Ka Bodyscapes, The Unbearable Being of Lightness, March March March, and S Durga. Out of these, only Ka Bodyscpaes was eventually screened at a festival.
MIFF concluded on the evening of February 3, with awards given in more than a dozen categories, worth more than Rs 50 lakh. There was no mention of In the Shade of Fallen Chinar. The film neither got screened nor its filmmakers received a formal written reply by the ministry justifying its decision. (When I got in touch with the Director General of Films Division, Desai, he said that MIFF would have screened the documentary if it had gotten a censor certificate, thereby absolving the ministry of its responsibilities, and putting the onus on the filmmakers at the last moment for a time-taking process.)
But Fazil and Sebastian remain unfazed. “It doesn’t dishearten us,” said Fazil. “In fact, it adds more fuel to our energies, more passion towards what we’re doing. Our films will be more political in future.” Fazil’s optimism reminds you of a line from his own documentary, where the musician Safiuddin says, “Conflict is a perfect place for art to thrive. Art for the heck of art is one thing, but art for personal healing is something else.”
“We were happy to raise questions that pose a threat to our democracy in general,” said Fazil. “We don’t feel bad that we didn’t get a response, because we know how things work in our country. If looked at from a different perspective, everything can look so pessimistic, but we choose to look the other way.”