How Director Jayan Cherian Is Taking On Homophobic Censorship In India

Posted by Shambhavi Saxena in Cake, Interviews, LGBTQ, Staff Picks
March 12, 2017

After the Central Board of Film Certification rejected “Lipstick Under My Burkha” for being “too lady-oriented”, the 2016 Malayalam film “Ka Bodyscapes” has become the latest casualty in the onslaught on creative expression.

On February 28, the film’s director Jayan Cherian was issued a notice refusing certification, because he was “glorifying homosexuality” and because “a female Muslim character is shown masturbating”.

In a sardonic Facebook post, he termed it as “the final nail in [his] coffin“. But he isn’t backing down just yet.

The Cake caught up with the director to discuss the CBFC’s actions, the film itself, and what he plans to do next.

“Ka Bodyscapes” follows the lives of Haris (a gay painter) Vishnu (a rural Kabaddi player from a conservative Hindu family), and Sia (an activist from a conservative Muslim family).

Several incidents in the film are inspired by real life,” Cherian tells The Cake. “In the last three or four years, young people in Kerala started to use their own bodies as tools of protest – which we see in the Bloody Napkin campaign, and the Kiss of Love protest.

A still from “Ka Bodyscapes”. Photo courtesy of Jayan Cherian.

He describes it as “a film about the plight of an artist in a censorial world” and the irony of the CBFC’s decision is not lost on anyone, least of all on Cherian. When “Ka Bodyscapes” was selected for last year’s International Film Festival of Kerala, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting unexpectedly intervened, to have it removed.

The brouhaha justifies the film,” he says. “It has a politics against fascism, against dehumanising surveillance, and naturally, conservative fundamentalist forces are criticised in it.”

It was in July last year that he hit the first roadblock, when the CBFC said he was insulting the Hindu religion by ‘putting Hanuman in bad light’, and ‘showing him as gay’. Cherian explains the particular instance the CBFC objected to:

One of the central characters, Vishnu, is a kabaddi player and wrestler, and a wrestler’s personal god is Hanuman. He also models for Haris’ paintings. In one of these, Vishnu is flying like Hanuman with a heap of books with titles like ‘Queer in India’, and ‘Section 377’. So like Hanuman brings Sanjeevni, Haris’ lover is taking away this archaic law. This is an activist gesture of an activist painter.

But the Board missed the symbolism. Spectacularly.

A still from “Ka Bodyscapes”. Photo courtesy of Jayan Cherian.

Disappointed with the Revising Committee, Cherian decided to lawyer up, after which two remarkable things happened:

The Kerala High court pronounced judgement,” he says, “and the film had to be cleared in 30 days. And the CBFC ignored that.”

At this point, it’s a serious offence for the Board to keep pillorying him. So why is this happening?

The current BJP government has filled the CBFC with their people,” Cherian says. “Pahlaj Nihalani ji himself is an RSS person, and has created this homogenous committee with a particular ideology.”

Still seeking clearance, he screened the film yet again in Bombay on February 17, 2017, where Nihalani himself was present.

Then after one week, I receive a letter saying it is an ‘anti-woman’ film, and it denigrates women, because a character uploads a picture of a bloody napkin to her Facebook profile. Indian cinema produces all kinds of misogynistic rubbish every year and they have no problem with that!

Double-standard detected. And Cherian believes it exists because another force at work – the commercial film industry.

The CBFC acts as a tool of exclusion for them, they’re an elite club, and they can eliminate unwanted political filmmakers, and discourage others from their crony world.

But it’s the “we’re doing this for your own good” attitude that he finds most laughable.

A grandiose, delusional person like Pahlaj Nihalani thinks he is the guardian of Indian values!

With Section 377, Cherian says “India is a historical freeze-frame“, because we keep harping on a Victorian morality code that the British themselves got rid of in the ‘60s. “If you look at the real Indian morality, we are beyond all binaries. Our gods are half female, half male. We worship the ‘linga’ in every home. In Kerala, our god is Lord Ayyappa, the product of Shiva and Vishnu’s same-sex union! There’s no such thing as ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’, desire and pleasure is applied anywhere and everywhere.”

But along with Section 377, there’s something else Cherian draws our attention to: The Cinematograph Act of 1952, and its 1918 predecessor, which had a very specific purpose: to crush nationalism in colonial India.

They made committees to examine the tacit political agenda in films like like ‘Bhakta Vidur’ (1921) and ‘Thyagabhoomi’ (1939),” says Cherian.

Fortunately, in post-Independence India, the censoring body was transformed into a certifying one. But it looks like Nihalani didn’t get the memo. And it’s costing audiences the chance to watch a very thought-provoking and politically charged film.

Filmmaker Jayan Cherian.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about “Ka Bodyscapes” is the overlap of fiction and reality. Cherian experiments with putting real people into his films. There’s trans activist Shyam Sheetal. The character Haris is based on Queerala founder Jijo Kuriakose. Journalist Naseera plays a near-autobiographical role as Sia. And former sex worker Nalini Jameela is subversively cast as a conservative housewife. Even the paintings in the film were done by Kerala-based artist Manjesh, whose work focuses on desire and the body.

“When a country is afraid of its artists, it’s a dangerous sign,” Cherian remarks. “Looking back at Germany, or Stalinist Russia, or Fascist Italy, you can see this.”

But in the face of these portents, he says he won’t give up, and will go to the Supreme Court if it comes to that.

Before leaving off, Cherian has a few words to share: “Right now, the civil society and artists and writers have to be vigilant. Democracy is a continuum and we need to keep on working and struggling. Campaigning is important for filmmakers. Campaigning, and have a mass class-action suit to get rid of this draconian, fascist act. Make more films and never compromise for the censor board.”