Is it a movie? A documentary? Video art?

Artist Babu Eshwar Prasad’s Kannada movie Gaalibeeja (Wind Seed) has flummoxed the Bengaluru office of the Central Board of Film Certification. Four examining officers watched the arthouse movie on December 25 but refused to give it a screening certificate. The examiners, including regional officer Nagendra Swamy, said they could not understand whether Gaalibeeja was a documentary or a feature. They also told Prasad his debut lacked technical polish, didn’t have easily relatable characters or a simple story arc.

Here is a clip from the movie that is too precious for a censor certificate, which is mandatory if a film is to be screened at film festivals or if the producers wants to apply for government grants and awards.

Gaalibeeja is a meta-narrative about the road movie genre, seen through the eyes of an unnamed civil engineer. Produced on a meagre budget, the 96-minute movie is, in its creator’s words, “a fragmented, rather than a straightforward, narrative” about the engineer’s encounters with several people, including a movie pirate, a poster maker and a female biker. The CBFC seems to agree with Prasad on the fractured narrative bit.

“The film has been refused a certificate by the examining committee according to our guidelines, according to which a film must be a documentary or a feature,” Nagendra Swamy said. “This film does not fit into the categories. At the end of any screening, a film has to make some sense. But Gaalibeeja lacks the minimum cinematic standard. The movie has a fractured characterisation, and when a movie is too fractured, it makes no sense.”

Arthouse blues

Gaalibeeja will make sense to anybody with a fair amount of exposure to international arthouse cinema. Typical elements include existential debates, elliptical storytelling modes, the spare use of dialogue, actors chosen for their physical presence rather than their histrionic skills and evocative landscapes.

Had, for instance, Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse been submitted for certification at the CBFC’s Bengaluru office, it might have been denied a certificate on the same grounds. The film comprises 30 long takes and features the grindingly repetitive routine of a farmer and his horse.

Swamy, the censor board official, bristled at criticism of his decision by such eminent directors as Girish Kasaravalli in the Bengaluru press. “It is not about art, we will not go into the artistic part,” he said. “What is a scene? There is a rule for this. It’s wrong for people like Kasaravalli to say that we don’t know what world cinema is.”

The Bengaluru office has previously rejected other movies for lacking cinematic merit, Swamy said. “The board includes doctors, housewives and social workers, they are educated and well aware of what is happening in the world,” he said. “To make a statement like this just because a movie is refused a certificate is uncalled for.”

Is it the CBFC’s job to decide on a movie’s artistic credentials – and, indeed, to decide if a movie is a movie? Features and documentaries have and continue to influence each other to the extent that it can be hard to tell reality from manufactured realism. Independent filmmakers are almost entirely shooting on digital formats that make their films appear “un-cinematic”, but technology can never be confused with intent. Bdesides, one of the cornerstones of arthouse cinema is formal experimentation and challenging conventionally accepted storytelling modes.

“The censors are not supposed to decide on the technical aspects of a film,” Prasad said. He will now have to take his case to the CBFC’s revising committee, which is the higher body of appeal, a process that will take several more days.

An up and down year 

The argument levelled against Prasad is a new, and hopefully isolated, development in the long and tortuous relationship between the CBFC and filmmakers. The board likes to emphasis its certification duties rather than its censorious tendencies. Yet, the process of procuring the document that deems whether a movie is suitable for public viewing is never as smooth, transparent or fair as it needs to be. Productions with risqué content might be rewarded with a U certificate; extremely violent films pass uncut but A-rated; movies with explicit dialogue will struggle to avoid audio cuts. Many films pass mostly untouched, but others have to struggle through various committees.

The game has no rules, but it does involve luck. If filmmakers are fortunate, they will get a set of examiners who understand the context within which subject matter deemed as explicit has been presented. Otherwise, like Prasad, filmmakers will have to justify their artistic choices to the censors, explain the significance of a word here and a scene there, and prove that their creation is indeed a film.