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Ashvin Kumar: “Pre-release Censorship Is A Bizzare Idea”, On ‘Little Terrorist’ And More

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By Asmita Sarkar:

The debate around censorship leaks out of a dialectic of what is ‘reasonable restriction’, when the nation allows free speech and expression. By whose reason is an artists’ freedom being clamped down on. Independent filmmaker Ashvin Kumar’s works have been banned many a times for it’s content, which is no standard to judge his talent. His short film, Little Terrorist, nominated for the Academy Awards, with its air of authenticity deals with the superflousness of borders that create fault lines between indigenous people belonging to the same community, living in different nation states.

Little Terrorist, a 15 minute short film, is being released for free. You can watch it below:

The Oscar Nominated Filmmaker Ashvin Kumar, who has been courting controversy, for the thought provoking themes in his movies and documentaries, talked to us about his second production Little Terrorist, which was nominated for the Academy Awards and has won 5 international film awards.

Asmita Sarkar(AS): What will the audience take away from Little Terrorist?

Ashvin Kumar(AK): Since the time I read about the real-life story of that Pakistani boy who crossed over to India by mistake, and then was sent back to Lahore by PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I’ve been struck by the redundancy of the nation state- both conceptual and organisational. The absurdity that all the grand narratives, jingoism and rhetoric have succeeded in doing is puncturing the economies of two very poor countries who’ve ended up pointing nuclear weapons at each other, which we hope they shall never use. The Gurdaspur Attack, the arrest of Mohameed Naved and escalation of hostilities on the LOC are but recent expressions of a lack of imagination on both sides. The justification for borders and the grand narratives of great nations have clearly failed. While real people live real lives on either side of these fences, barbed wires cut the landscape of their humanity, culture, civilisation, divides their children from their ancestors and, indeed, stymies’ the very human touch that is the only real solution to any such conflict. I don’t know which film­maker would say this, but it’s almost a matter of regret and dismay that this film has aged so well. For it feels far more relevant today, a decade later. Its message of hope, my wide-­eyed idealism seem quite naive given the hawkish, illiberal, imperialist impulses that characterise public life today.

AS: How does Little Terrorist contribute to the discussion of peace between India and Pakistan, especially in light of the present discordant relationship between the two countries?

AK: It helps us to suspend disbelief for about fifteen minutes and create an ideal. Imagination is what makes us human and that is what sustains us while the guns blaze and the jingoism is shrill. People can go back to ideas suggested by a film like Little Terrorist. And then, when the guns fall silent and throats are exhausted, when the grand narratives of nationalism are consigned to history’s dustbin, when we are prepared for a real dialogue and solution, they will find that it will be nurtured by one individual at a time, that people either side of the border naturally gravitate towards each other, with little or no assistance from the powers that be.

AS: Two of your movies are on an Indiatimes list of banned movies. What is it about the films that you make, do you think, that stops the CBFC from giving permission?

AK: The CBFC is a redundant edifice. It was created by imperialists to keep the stranglehold of oppression on the Indian native, who they ruled. Our feudal rules, having tipped their hat to their British predecessors, use it to achieve similar ends. Institutions like CBFC show us up. They remind us about how independent we have really become since 1947. That, read along with the clause of ‘reasonable restriction’ on freedoms of speech, privacy and so on – anyone who so chooses can limit all speech and expression in this country. And we are seeing it put to spectacular use with the new administration whose tendencies are autocratic, illiberal not to mention parochial and misogynistic.

The CBFC will argue that all my films have got A rating after all. Yes but the A ratings is a form of back door censorship. The minute a film gets an A rating, unless it’s not selling sex, the distributors just vanish. Of course they do, they can’t sell it to any TV channel and it causes troubles with theatrical releases too. This pre-release censorship is a bizarre idea and it only applies to movies. Think about it, if Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh were to write a novel, with provocative characters, they wouldn’t have to submit their manuscript to any committee, would they? Closer to home, neither does Barkha Dutt has to for TV?

AS: What inspires you to choose narratives from conflict areas for documentaries and fiction films?

AK: I think the job of an artist is to push the boundaries of society. Provoke. Create. Debate. Call out for discussion. I am very mindful of that. So, I think if you are in a place that’s the whirlwind of conflict, you have to do something. The real stories are there and as a film maker, the emotion of it is quite overwhelming. I didn’t go to Kashmir to make Inshallah Kashmir, I went there to shoot a documentary on football. But, while making the film I realised two things. I saw that, even as a person who had researched about militancy and in general Kashmir, most of what I knew was outright government propaganda. Second, people want their stories told. The intention is to get their story forward and have a discussion which can ease the conflict. That’s the best case scenario.

AS: Should creative professions like writing and filmmaking be learnt in institutions? Also how has your experience as a teacher of filmmaking been through your workshops?

AK: The jury is out on this one. I think institutions are great for a network of individuals, you get to step into a very tentative career with, and they provide help and support that is career building and invaluable. I also feel that to be immersed in a craft for 3 years, without the obligation for it to do anything commercially, is a huge fillip to anyone’s artistic journey. That said, I don’t think you learn much film making at institutions. The best way to learn how to make a film is to read, watch and then when you’re confident – do. When I started out I had to do with 16mm / 35mm cameras and film kit. It was just very tough to get all that organised. Today it’s just so easy with the technology available. I’d recommend – just do it.

My experience as a teacher has been fantastic. My approach is very logical and user friendly. I start from why we tell each other stories and end up with creating a full screenplay. And answer two simple questions thereafter: where to put the camera, what to tell the actor. All of film making is about answering these two fundamental questions – well. And that last word, is the critical one. But it’s all about logical, step by step analysis of your own thought process and pushing your own creativity to places where sometimes it just doesn’t want to go. That’s what makes it a pretty intense and emotional course.

AS: What are the hardships and freedoms that one experiences when they are an independent filmmaker like you?

AK: My biggest hardship right now is that I want to make a film about Kashmir but because of the security situation there, and the new administration’ lack of imagination, I have to keep very quiet about it. I am not saying I am self-censoring (though many people have suggested that to me – why don’t you remove this, or play down that) even before the film is made! But I am talking about having the freedom to breathe as an artist, knowing that your state or legal system will support your rights and liberties. Unfortunately – I just don’t get that sense in today’s India. So that is my biggest hardship.

AS: How has winning the BAFTA, and being nominated for Oscars, European Film Academy changed your craft?

AK: It gave me a very swollen head which took a long time to wear off.

Today, art and expression, lies bound to arbitrary censorship following a loose trail of morality and jingoism. Filmmakers, like Ashvin Kumar, are not only documenting the narratives that take flight from the voice of the people but are also challenging the mainstream ideology by refusing to co-opt to the dominant paradigm, thus embracing the true idea of independence.

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