In one of the most absorbing sections of Brahmanand S Siingh’s new documentary Riding on a Sunbeam, social worker Prakash Amte plays with his pet leopards like they're tabby cats.

Amte, who runs a community centre for leprosy patients in Hemalkasa in Maharashtra, also operates an animal shelter, licensed by the Central Zoo Authority. His wards include leopards, hyenas, badgers and turtles. In the film, he playfully pulls the leopards by their tails, and even lets one of the felines lick his hair. He also plays a game with his turtle that involves putting a key into its mouth.

None of these moments are featured in the censored version of the documentary. Singh has had to cut them out because the Animal Welfare Board of India and the Central Zoo Authority objected to this section and demanded to know why Siingh hadn’t intimated the organisations before the shoot. The CBFC could not give Siingh the go-ahead without a clearance from the AWBI, and the filmmaker’s planned theatrical release of the documentary in 2015 was delayed by over a year. Siingh still hopes to screen Riding on a Sunbeam in cinemas. The film has also been sold to the streaming website iTunes. The Indian version on iTunes will carry out the cuts.

“For the Indian version, we have chopped off all these scenes,” said Siingh, who has previously made biographical films on RD Burman and Jagjit Singh. “Here is a film that shows the not-so-known touristy side of India, not the Taj Mahal or Jaisalmer, but people doing good things. We shot a lot at Prakash Amte’s rescue centre. His relationship with the animals is very interesting. They are like his pets.”

The AWBI and the CBFC did not respond to requests for an interview.
The trailer of ‘Riding on a Sunbeam’.

The documentary covers the travels of Mauktik Kulkarni and Samantha Jo Fitzsimons through India. Mauktik and Samantha take trains, planes, buses and bullock carts in their cross-country trek and visit Azamgarh, Ayodhya and Nagaland in the process.

The documentary was completed in 2015 and submitted to the CBFC, which then passed on the screener to the ABWI. The original version had a disclaimer that the filmmakers do not endorse superstition, and that no animals were harmed while it was being made. But this assertion wasn’t enough for the AWBI, which has been stringent in excising portrayals of perceived animal cruelty from feature films. But what about fact-based works, in which it is almost impossible to control events?

“We got a list of 20 things from the Animal Welfare board that had to go, but why is it so?” Siingh said. “This is a documentary, where nothing has been performed. We merely rolled the camera, and it is our right as creators to shoot what is in front of us. We don’t need the AWBI’s permission to shoot a documentary, since it comes under the category of reportage. Do news channels like Aaj Tak and NDTV take prior permission when riots are happening?”

The Central Zoo Authority was also sent a copy of Riding on a Sunbeam, and they raised 37 objections, Siingh said. “If I am recreating a scene or a feature, I can understand,” he reasoned. “Here is somebody who has spent his life helping lepers. The animals are his friends and they live in consonance with each other.”

Animal rights activists might balk at Amte’s familiarity with the animals, but the ABWI’s censoriousness has ensured that they will not be able to watch the original film to judge for themselves.

“The end result was a delay of a year and three months running between the AWBI and the CZA,” Siingh said. “Such vigilance will not create better awareness in handling animals properly. It was very agonising, especially since here’s an honest film encapsulating the India about which people would like to know. The film may not be politically correct, but it shows a different side of India in an interesting light.”

Is Riding on a Sunbeam an isolated case or does the AWBI have new a weapon with which to enforce its diktats? Already, the Health Ministry’s campaign against the depiction of smoking and the use of tobacco products in movies has been extended to documentaries. Unscripted and unpredictable moments featuring smoking or tobacco chewing are now being forced to carry a health advisory scroll at the bottom of the screen.

Animals, birds and insects can be shown in feature films only with the prior permission of the AWBI, which sends a representative to the shoot to ensure that the creatures are not being mistreated. Improvisation is not encouraged. If this writ extends to the documentary genre, where it is difficult to predict the events that will unfold during a shoot, we can expect animals to be rare sightings in documentaries, just as they are in the movies at the moment.