Why has Gulzar’s Libaas not being released all these years?

It’s not a radical political work that needs to be kept away from impressionable minds. It is not a sexually subversive movie that has the power to corrupt the thoughts of its watchers either. Libaas is about a woman who leaves her husband for another man. Since the movie is by a filmmaker with a faintly conservative bent towards his female characters, it’s safe to say that Libaas is progressive by the standards of Hindi mainstream cinema in the eighties, but hardly taboo-busting.

Yet, Vikas Mohan, publisher of the movie trade magazine Super Cinema, produced Libaas in 1988, screened the love triangle at the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India that was held in Bangalore four years later, and then refused to release it. After Bangalore, it has been screened in public only once, on November 22, before a packed auditorium at IFFI in Goa, which clapped at the sharp dialogue and swooned over the musical score, especially the song Sili Hava. The discussion that followed the screening supervised by Gulzar’s close collaborator and protege Vishal Bhardwaj, also bore testament to the movie’s ability to enthuse viewers despite the passage of time.

A spat between director and producer

Mohan is now upset with the IFFI organisers for having organised the screening, and has sent them a legal notice demanding that they “return” the print to him. The Directorate of Film Festivals, which holds IFFI every year, isn’t going to return anything. Every time a movie gets picked for the Indian Panorama, which is a selection of the best cinema from around the country, a copy gets stored at the DFF archive. The government organisation retains the rights to show the acquisition at its own events – a common practice among film archives and film festivals around the world and also a way of ensuring that at least one copy survives.

Mohan’s rage doesn’t appear only to be a result of his misunderstanding of the DFF’s rights over his production. He also seems to be upset that a movie whose release he has successfully spiked all these years has emerged without his knowledge or permission.

Libaas’s absence is blamed on censorship, but it’s not of the kind imposed by the Central Board of Film Certification. Its producer wanted a far stronger say in the way the story shaped up, especially its conclusion, and countered the filmmaker’s refusal to back down with his counter-refusal to release the movie.

The limits of marriage

Libaas is based on Gulzar’s short story Seema from the Raavi Paar collection. Theatre director Sudhir, played by Naseeruddin Shah, and his actor wife Seema, portrayed by Shabana Azmi, seem to be the picture of married bliss, but appearances are deceptive – this is, after all, show business. Seema is sexually frustrated, and has an odd way of eyeing younger men, so when Sudhir’s childhood friend, TK (Raj Babbar) enters their lives, the inevitable happens.

The writer-director’s sympathies clearly lie with Sudhir, whose indifference to his wife is attributed to his passion for theatre. Seema’s digressions are not analysed, and she comes across as whimsical and unreasonable.

Mohan too felt so deeply for Sudhir that he wanted Seema to stay by his side, said a member of the production who wished to remain anonymous. Gulzar had delivered a few flops before Libaas, so his stock was down in any case. “Gulzar is a great man, but he can be very stubborn,” the crew member explained. “He refused to change the movie’s climax to suit the demands of distributors. They also wanted the movie to start with a flashback that would show that Seema stays with Sudhir and looks back on this particular episode on her life. The way the movie ends, it is not clear who she goes with.”

Even by 1988, by which time adultery-themed movies such as Arth and Ek Pal had come and gone, distributors still seemed shocked at the idea of a woman leaving her husband and co-habiting with another man. And it was possible then, as it is now, for producers to block their own projects rather than spend some more money on releasing them. Mohan made only one more film, Arzoo, in 1995, and retreated into the more dependable world of trade analysis.

Libaas has acquired a reputation it might not perhaps deserve because of the old saying about absence and fondness. Like other relationship dramas by its director, the movie rows firmly in the midstream. It is by no means shallow, but it doesn’t confront the depths of the passions of the characters. Libaas is smoothly narrated and has good performances, especially by Shah, and typically witty and delicate dialogue by Gulzar, but its insights into male-female relationships are superficial and unsatisfactory. It’s a movie firmly of its time, and should have been released and done with.