Bright Lights Film Journal

Challenging the Censor: An Interview with Indian Political Documentarian Rakesh Sharma

Kanizben, who saw a man burnt alive during the Naroda Patiya massacre in the 2002 riots, in a still from Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution.

“India has always assigned a special sort of power to film . . . an extraordinary power to corrupt gullible masses has been given to cinema.” – Rakesh Sharma

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I vacate the Mumbai headquarters of the Indian Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to phone filmmaker Rakesh Sharma, one of its most resolute critics. “Have you seen the news today?” Sharma asks. The Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India (COEAI), which represents most single screen theatre owners in the country, had directed its members to refrain from exhibiting any film involving a Pakistani actor, director, or technician. COEAI President Nitin Datar stated that while the decision is not permanent “Right now, sentiments of patriotism are running high and we felt that it was important for us to respect what the majority of people want.”

Karan Johar’s Ae Dil hai Mushkil is one of the films the COEAI has blocked from theatrical release in India due to the presence of Pakistani actor Fawad Khan.

The COEAI decree was merely the most recent stand taken by an Indian media association or broadcaster to ban Pakistani content or performers. It responded to the September 2016 attacks on Indian security forces in Uri, in the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir. Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted in response that “Pakistan is a terrorist state and it should be identified and isolated as such.” While the COEAI decision is clearly underpinned by citing the long-fought conflict over national territory, it derives its force through the contemporary centrality of “Hindutva” ideology to mainstream political life in India. As pundits in Europe and the United States seek to understand Brexit and Trump, they might also consider how an adjacent form of “reactionary authoritarian populism” has been mainstreamed in Indian political rhetoric since the late 1980s, alongside neoliberal governmental practices that have exacerbated inequality in the distribution of wealth.

Sharma himself is no stranger to censorship controversy. His 2004 film Final Solution examined the violence in the state of Gujarat in 2002 in which over 1000, mostly Muslim, people were killed and over 100,000 were displaced. Based on extensive interviews with victims and perpetrators, Final Solution’s thesis was that the violence had been organised rather than spontaneous, a pogrom supported by the deliberate non-intervention of local police. Final Solution also argued that the violence was tacitly endorsed by far-right politicians, advancing their careers by capitalising on the anti-Muslim sentiment of Hindutva populism. Sharma has continued to make this point, including by re-posting speeches by former Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, which have been disappearing from YouTube as Modi’s Prime Ministerial image is recast and mythologised.

Film certification in India is undertaken by the CBFC as an authority of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and under the Cinematograph Act 1952. Films can be rated U, for unrestricted public exhibition; UA, for unrestricted public exhibited with parental discretion advised; A, for Adults only; and S, for special groups of persons, such as doctors. The CBFC will regularly ask filmmakers for cuts in order that a film might receive a lower rating, including cuts requesting the reduction in length of specific content rather than its complete removal. Filmmakers anticipate this, deliberately including four-minute-long violent action sequences where two minutes will suffice, or a bikini shot where a one-piece swimsuit is sufficiently risqué.

Final Solution was refused a certificate for exhibition by the CBFC on the grounds that it promoted “communal disharmony among Hindu and Muslim groups and presents the picture of Gujarat riots in a way that may arouse communal feelings and clashes.” In response, Sharma rejected the decision of the CBFC’s examining committee and decided not to resubmit Final Solution to a revising committee, the next procedural step for a filmmaker. Sharma disputed the legitimacy of the reviewing process undertaken in the original examination, during which he was not able to be present, reviewers exited the screening regularly, and the length of the screening was shorter than the film itself. Instead of resubmitting his film, Sharma launched a pirate-and-circulate campaign in which fans were encouraged to proliferate copies of his documentary. Public outcry and widespread civil society support led to the then-CBFC Chairperson Anupam Kher establishing a rare “Special Committee” to assess the film, staffed by Kher, New Cinema luminary Shyam Benegal, theatre actor Dolly Thakore, and journalist-activist Teesta Setalvad. Final Solution was subsequently passed without a cut. In 2007, following prize-winning successes on the international film festival circuit it received an Indian President’s National Film Award.

Sharma characterises this inconsistency over censorship practices as the ongoing “schizophrenic nature of the state.” In 2006, with former film star Sharmila Tagore as Chairperson, Sharma and other filmmakers and activists were invited into the CBFC to run a workshop for examiners and officers on certifying films with sensitive gendered and political content. In July this year Bengali literary great Mahasweta Devi, famous for her activism for Indian tribal peoples, died aged 90 and tributes emerged from across the political spectrum, including from senior Ministers of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Months later a group of students at the Central University of Haryana performed one of her plays, Draupadi, and were accused of sedition. “There’s a climate of intolerance and bigotry in India,” Sharma states. In the Supreme Court in 2015, director Pankaj Butalia sought to gain a certificate for his documentary Textures of Loss, which represents the grief of people who have lost family members in the conflict in Kashmir. Cuts had been demanded by the CBFC. A bench of Justices accused the film of being “one-sided,” and Butalia withdrew his petition and proceeded to the High Court. Sharma thinks that for years “the intelligentsia and filmmakers came to see the judiciary as a savior [for free speech]. But we need to understand that it can all change with the appointment of a few conservative judges, especially if they are handpicked by the government.”

In the CBFC, the current Chairperson, Pahlaj Nihalani, has claimed he is “proud to be a [Prime Minister Nahendra] Modi chamcha,” or acolyte. Nihalani is himself a former film producer and distributor of many “B-grade Bollywood potboilers” or “family entertainers”, depending on the judge. Recent CBFC decisions such as to demand 89 cuts in the action film Udta Punjab and to reduce the length of kissing sequences in the James Bond film Spectre have earned widespread criticism for the authority’s conservatism, inconsistency, and lack of transparency. Udta Punjab producer and bête noire to the CBFC, Anurag Kashyap, compared India with North Korea and called Nihalani an oligarch. Comparing Indian film and television regulation, while less dramatic, might be more illuminating. While India’s almost 2000 television channels are subject to industry self-regulation for content, the CBFC’s interventionist approach conveys the historical significance attributed to cinema’s presumed effects. For Sharma, “India has always assigned a special sort of power to film . . . an extraordinary power to corrupt gullible masses has been given to cinema.” However, the explosion of satellite broadcasters and television ownership from the 1990s on has meant “the average visual literacy level is now multiple times what it once was.”

Rakesh Sharma

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting appears to agree. Its recently commissioned Report of the Committee of Experts Chaired by Shyam Benegal to Recommend Broad Guidelines/Procedures for Certification of Films by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) signals likely shifts in Indian approaches to film content regulation. The Report’s recommendations include a new content category (A-C or Adult with Caution), the inclusion of film industry representatives on examining committees, and the exclusion of the Chairperson, CBFC Board, and Regional officers from the certification process itself. I asked Sharma whether he thought such recommendations, if implemented, would shift the situation for filmmakers like him. He was pessimistic: “the Committee was given a mandate to work within the framework of the Cinematograph Act. My problem is with the Act itself. It needs to be challenged and dismantled. Everything that was thrown at me continues to be in the Act.” Part II, Section 5B(1) remains of particular concern. It states that “A film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, the film or any part of it is against the interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.” The political and media responses to the Uri attacks may suggest this legal power is increasingly likely to be exercised to quell critical filmmaking, despite the wider reforms.

Documentary making is difficult in any context but especially so in India. There is little state funding available, limited commercial interest, state and extra-legal censorship. Sharma has been crowdsourcing financial support to digitise and archive a decade’s worth of interviews filmed in Gujarat detailing the aftermath of the events depicted in Final Solution. Across the next year he intends to release Final Solution Revisited, a set of documentaries compiled from such material. Specific films will document the associated rise of Prime Minister Modi, the victims’ quest for justice and rehabilitation, the much-lauded Gujarat model of development in the backdrop of rising farmer suicides, and a portrait of one of the key mob leaders, in The Willing Fundamentalist.

I asked him whether his tactics for engaging with the CBFC would be any different now than in 2004. Would he bypass the CBFC altogether and simply distribute these films online? On the contrary, Sharma is critical of such an approach. “I think this Censor Board, headed by Modi-acolyte Nihalani, is rather unlikely to clear any of these four or five films. To me it’s a wonderful opportunity to once again create a public discourse and drive home the absurdity of film censorship in India.” For Sharma, on art and the machinery of the state, “It is extremely important to engage. But engagement cannot just be in the legal realm. It needs to be public. It needs to canvas public opinion and galvanise civil society support as well.”