The Central Board of Film Certification’s refusal to certify the film “Lipstick Under My Burkha” has once again raised questions about the stifling of voices through theatre and cinema. This debate has been raging in India for the past few years. But banning films or refusal to provide a certificate isn’t new. Over the years, many films have been banned, for having political overtones, homosexual content or adult language and humour. Basically, for having voices that the State may not want us to hear. Here’s a look at some of them.
Set in the turbulent 1930s, the last few years of the British Raj in India, this Bengali film tells the story of a poor Chinese hawker – Wang Lu (played by Kali Banerjee). Lu is an honest man, who consistently refuses to be part of the flourishing and profitable opium trade in the city. The central plot of the film is his platonic relationship with Basanti, a woman with political affiliations. When Basanti is arrested and imprisoned, the simpleton Lu is pushed into involvement with her political group. The film eventually shows Wang Lu returning to China, to fight the Japanese invasion of his country. The film was banned in India for having political overtones and for showing the country in ‘bad light.’
This Tamil drama depicts the story of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by a female suicide bomber, in the backdrop of the Sri Lankan Civil War. It also charts the police investigation that followed, and India’s efforts to deal with Tamil militant organisation Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The film was completed in 1992, but the censor board refused to allow a film with such a drastic political message to be released. The film was eventually released with a few cuts in 2007, but failed to make much of a mark due to its outdated cinematography and visual effects.
The Shabana Azmi – Nandita Das starrer, directed by Deepa Mehta, revolves around a lesbian relationship. Radha (Azmi) and Sita (Das) are two women trapped in unhappy marriages. Seeking comfort in one another, they end up becoming lovers. Overjoyed at the satisfaction they find with one another, they continue their relationship in secret. But, when the truth unfolds, they must make a choice. The film was initially released uncut in 1998, the only condition for release being that Sita’s name had to be changed to Nita. What followed were protests – some that turned violent – leading to a withdrawal from theatres for re-examination by the Board. The film was eventually allowed to re-release.
This film looks at the consequences of Operation Blue Star in Punjab, which eventually lead to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. What followed were three days of violence against the Sikh community in Delhi. The film focuses on the turmoil faced by the youth of Punjab and their families, following the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, and explores the psychological reasons for many of them to turn to violence and terrorism. The film was one of the first to be made on the subject of the ’84 riots. It was banned in Punjab and Delhi.
This 2004 film was one of the first to focus on transgender people and address the many taboos surrounding them. The film is centred around two drag performers, Bibbo and Shabbo, who are both attracted to Samir, an aspiring actor. It addressed the issues and emotions of the transsexual community in a way that was path-breaking, even more so considering that it was made for a society that is still extremely conservative about the issue. The film was screened at many international film festivals and also won two awards. But back home, it was called ‘vulgar and offensive’. Despite appeals by the filmmaker for a certification and release, it still remains banned in India.
This documentary focuses on the different perspectives of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Hindus and Muslims of different age groups and sexes were interviewed and what resulted was a range of justifications and reasons for the riots, as well as stories of what happened. They also shared their vision for the future. The documentary is divided into two parts, ‘Pride and Genocide’ which deals with the riots and their immediate aftermath, and ‘The Hate Mandate’, which focuses on the exploitation of the violence by political groups for their own agendas. While the ban on the film was eventually cleared, it is yet to be shown on Indian television.
The third and final part of the ‘Elements’ trilogy, this Indo-Canadian film by Deepa Mehta deals with the lives of widows at an ashram in Varanasi, the youngest of whom is only eight years old. The film follows their spirit and hope for a better life, even though they are treated as dispensable and exploited by the woman who runs the ashram. It was a path breaking movie that questioned social practices such as child marriage and the ostracisation of widows. So, naturally, trouble started during the early days of filming, with many right wing elements protesting the film. Eventually, the team was forced to abandon shooting in India, and moved location to Sri Lanka. The film was finally shown the green flag for release years later in 2007.
It is the story of a Kashmiri boy who is an aspiring footballer. He wants to tour the world and play but is denied the chance to, as his father was a wanted militant in the 90s. The film captures the scenic beauty of Kashmir as well as the claustrophobia of many of its citizens who are continuously denied opportunities to progress. The film follows the obstacles that a young Kashmiri boy must face to follow his dreams, and a dedicated Argentinian coach who starts his own football academy under the constant threat of violence. The film was banned due to its content, as the authorities believed it would flare communal sensibilities in India. The film was eventually given an ‘A’ certificate, which is highly unusual for documentaries.
Around the same time as the “Udta Punjab” certification controversy, another film ran into trouble and was eventually not given a certificate for release. It was Mohalla Assi. A relatively low budget movie, it is a satire based on the commercialisation of the city of Varanasi, one of the holiest cities of Hindu culture. It is based on the literary piece “Kashi Ka Assi” by Sahitya Akademi winner Kashinath Singh. The film was banned as it would ‘hurt the sentiments of a particular community’ as well as due to abusive language. One of the most controversial scenes of the Sunny Deol starrer shows a man dressed as Lord Shiva, uttering expletives.
As these cases clearly show, banning voices that cause discomfort to the State is a longstanding tradition. But ironically (and aptly) enough, the more such voices are stifled, the more they will look for newer modes of expression – and you can’t ban them all.