India’s censors, moral bullies and cultural tribunes are never at rest. Quick and eager to take offence, they are currently fulminating over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati, a movie that imagines the life of Padmini, the mythical character of 16th century poet Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s Avadhi poem Padmavat. Although the Supreme Court has refused to stay the film’s release, the demand refuses to die – across the nation, Bharatiya Janata Party legislators have “made their opposition to it a test of patriotism”, and the Censor Board has rejected the film’s certification application on the grounds that it’s incomplete. This is a good time to revisit a censorship row from the 1970s over a play titled Sakharam Binder. Scripted by the brilliant Vijay Tendulkar, Sakharam Binder told the story of a man who brings home the castaway wives of others. It was banned two years after its debut for being in conflict with cultural traditions. This archival article, published in the NCPA Quarterly Journal in the 1970s, recounts how the controversy unfolded.

The changing fortunes of the Marathi play Sakharam Binder, which fell afoul of the Stage Performances Security Board of the government of Maharashtra, well illustrate the occupational insensitivity affecting a censor. In ancient Rome, the office of a censor had changed from that of an official presiding over the census to that of the guardian of public morality. Our censors also tend to enlarge their limited burden of eliminating offending parts of a script, and assume the role of being the arbiters of morals and even of taste. Otherwise it is difficult to appreciate why this serious play by a distinguished playwright should have been mutilated by the Board which imposed as many as 32 cuts including the elimination of climactic scenes.

Censorship in Maharashtra

The delicate question of censoring plays in Maharashtra is, curiously enough, governed by the Bombay Police Act, 1951. In the motley crowd of subjects under its Section 33, which includes rules for regulating processions and riding elephants in the streets, there is also to be found the power to license theatrical performances and to subject it to prior scrutiny by a Board. Under the rules, the Board may refuse to grant a certificate of suitability on the grounds that the play or any part of it is against the sovereignty and integrity of India or the security of the State, relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite any offence. Thus, the concepts of decency and morality have been pushed into a category which mainly includes different heads of public order. The Board is further enjoined to be guided by certain directions, including the noble sentiment that no performance should lower the moral standards of those who see it. The numerous general principles are cast wider than what public order requires and an enthusiastic member of the Board may (and some of them do) regard the directions about the interests of decency to include the Sermon on the Mount as well as the Ten Commandments. The general principles are almost as wide as the powers of the Lord Chamberlain who under the Theatres Act of 1843 could prohibit any stage play whenever he thought its performance would militate against good manners, decorum and the preservation of public peace.

Complex characters

In November 1971, the script of Sakharam Binder written by Vijay Tendulkar was submitted to the Stage Performances Scrutiny Board. The play centres round three main characters – Sakharam, Laxmi and Champa. Even a bare outline of the plot would indicate the insensitivity of the censors’ approach. When the curtain goes up, Sakharam, a coarse yet forceful person, enters, accompanied by Laxmi, an emaciated figure, clutching a bundle of clothes to her bosom. Sakharam sternly tells her what to expect. He is poor, but she will get two square meals, clothes and a roof over her head. She will have to be his wife and he will brook no nonsense. He is frank and outspoken and his rough idiom seems the right vehicle for the values he has evolved for himself. He tries to work out an independent philosophy of life, with no sense of false obligations. Laxmi is shown as a helpless woman, steeped in traditional morality but compelled to submit. She does the household chores under his exacting eye. At the time of the Ganapati festival, Laxmi objects to Sakharam’s Muslim friend Dawood participating in the aarti. Infuriated by her attitude, Sakharam beats her up. The scenes that follow show how their relationship deteriorates. In spite of her reluctance to leave, Sakharam drives her away from the house.

In the second act, Sakharam enters the house accompanied by Champa. He’s repeating the same well-worn formula with which he had awed Laxmi. But she is a vibrant, earthy being and his words have a hollow ring. Sakharam isn’t able to gain ascendancy over her. When Champa’s husband enters the house, she cannot control her fury and attacks him. Asked to explain her actions, she tells Sakharam and Dawood that her husband ruined her life – he wanted to make her a whore. Sakharam is infatuated with Champa. When she is asleep in the kitchen, he approaches her but she resists him. However, when he threatens to throw her out on the streets, she comes to terms with her own helpless condition. She submits to him, but only under the influence of alcohol. After this, there’s always a note of savage despair in Sakharam’s manner of making demands on her. And she can submit to him only by numbing her senses with liquor. Sad desperation dominates the scenes that follow. On the night of Dassera, Laxmi, who’s been forced out by her nephew, tries to take shelter with Sakharam but he drives her out.

In the final act, Laxmi tries to enter the house again when Sakharam is at work and Champa takes her in. Sakharam finds Laxmi’s presence disconcerting but allows her to stay simply because Champa insists. Champa’s husband returns when she is out. Laxmi takes pity on him and feeds him. But Champa finds out about his visits and warns Laxmi that her wishes must not be thwarted. Laxmi’s presence in the house begins to tell on Sakharam. He shows loss of vigour in his relations with Champa and her taunts also infuriate him. He orders Laxmi to leave the house at once. She falls at his feet and when he refuses to listen to her entreaties, she tells him that Champa is evil. She has been having relations with his friend Dawood; Laxmi can vouch for this. Sakharam storms out of the house. He returns a dazed creature and strangles Champa. Laxmi realises what has happened and promises to take care of him. She brings in a shovel to bury her body and leads him to the kitchen. A broken man, he now dumbly watches her dig the ground and the curtain slowly comes down.

The play deals with a character who has evolved his own approach to life and marriage. He faces the compulsions of sex frankly and, therefore, certain references to sex are to be expected in his speech. The play deals with a serious theme. Its total impact on playgoers is grim. It compels them to give some thought to the fate of the characters. The scenes where Sakharam imposes his will on Champa, far from “tending to deprave or corrupt”, evoke compassion, even terror. Anyone who gets titillated by Champa’s submission and remains unaffected by her anguish may as well find the scenes in Desire under the Elms or the descriptions in Tess of the D’Urbervilles of prurient interest.

Initially this also appears to have been the view of the Board that granted limited certificates on two occasions. The only conditions in these certificates were the elimination of four expletives (not four-lettered words and very much the current coin of the realm) and the curious direction that all scenes and references in connection with alcohol not conforming to the provisions of the Bombay Prohibition Act be dropped. (Presumably Sakharam ought to have shown his permit every time he drank).

Dithering board

Sakharam Binder was first performed in March 1972 and was received with critical acclaim. There was also some adverse reaction by critics who proclaimed that the play dealt with baser human instincts. One peculiar objection was that a Hindu wife is shown assaulting her husband in spite of his divine rights. The first certificate granted on March 4, 1972, was again issued on March 13, 1972. But on April 6, 1972, the Board abruptly cancelled it. The producer had to rush to the Bombay High Court which, on April 7, 1972, stayed the order and permitted the scheduled performances. At the hearing for admission, the Board informed the court that it had not finally decided on the issue of the certificate of suitability and would do so within a month.

The Board’s final decision was to grant a certificate of suitability with 32 conditions. It was later ascertained in the writ petition that many of the members of the Board had decided to impose these conditions without actually seeing the play. (All the members saw it only when a special performance was enacted for the High Court with only a blue bulb in front of the stage lighting up to indicate the offending passages). The final certificate issued on May 23, 1972, effectively mutilated the play. It eliminated critical parts of five climactic scenes (including two entire scenes), which were necessary to understand the development of the characters and the theme. These cuts, in effect, destroyed the play as an artistic work. They rendered the action disjointed and no spectator could ever understand, much less appreciate, the characters from what remained of the script.

Some of the cuts are characteristic of the workings of the Board. For instance, a common word for impotent in Marathi is pauneath (literally seven and three fourth – metaphorically incomplete). The Board deleted the word and suggested that namard (unmanly) be used instead. The word pauneath has no obscene overtones and it would be absurd for Sakharam who is a book binder to use the heavier word namard. Unless, of course, he had been reading the books he was binding. Another statement by Sakharam that “my appetite is not simple” was also eliminated presumably because appetite didn’t refer only to food. One stage direction that “Sakharam pulls Laxmi” was deleted and the Board suggested that Laxmi should move towards Sakharam (totally misunderstanding her reluctance to approach him). The point is not that the cuts were mala fide but that they were made in a manner which clearly shows that the majority of the Board hadn’t understood its theme.

High Court intervenes

The certificate of suitability in effect made it impossible for the play to be performed as a coherent work of dramatic art. Even though the earlier controversy had given them a certain amount of publicity, the producer and director declined to cash in by performing the play with the deletions. They approached the Bombay High Court challenging the vires of the rules themselves on constitutional grounds. The freedom guaranteed under the Constitution is of wide amplitude and guarantees to all citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression. This includes the freedom of communication and propagation of ideas with drama and cinema. It is true that under the Constitution, censorship is not impermissible. But at the same time, such restrictions should meet the test of good sense by being fair, procedurally and substantially. After all, the Constitution postulates a democratic form of government which requires that unorthodox and unpopular views be also offered in the marketplace of ideas.

The rules under the Bombay Police Act were successfully assailed in the High Court. In the result, the Court declared that the existing scheme of rules was void and set aside the whole chapter of rules relating to it. The decision of Justice Kania thus vindicated theatrical freedom by declaring that the rules were not reasonable and therefore ultra vires. The decision however leaves it open to the Government to formulate rules which would be consistent with the principles laid down in the decision.

A strong case can be made for elimination or restriction of the general censorship of plays. In this, the distinction between the stage and the screen is often missed. A film once shot and edited is a crystallised form of art and the screening would be identical every time. But the very nature of theatre makes it difficult for a play to be censored merely from its script. The performance of a play can differ completely from one group of actors to another and from one performance to another. An easy example is a bawdy version of The Taming of the Shrew compared to a school performance. Thus, censorship in the theatre, even if imposed, can only be regarding those parts of the script which cannot be performed without being offensive to a precise set of directions. Further, the rare attendance of children at the theatre and the relatively greater sophistication of its audiences also support the case for elimination of stage censorship.

Ill-read censors

The ultimate question in such matters is not so much of law as of the constitution and operation of the Board. The wide selection of members often includes people who have scant understanding of censorship. In the present case, one Board member so forgot his quasi-judicial function that he condemned the play in advance as arousing the passions of dogs and pigs (reminiscent of Khruschev’s attack on Pasternak). Another member was frank enough to state that in his opinion, no sexually-themed play should be permitted at all. Evidently, he thought that the audience should subscribe to the belief that the stork brings babies. Such views would not be taken seriously but for the fact that they are held by a censor. The solicitude of many well-meaning but ill-read censors is always for the figurative schoolgirl. They might heed Justice Stable’s warning in the case of The Philanderer – “Are we to take our literary standards as being on the level of something that is [only] suitable for a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl?”

The most delicate question for any Board is to consider the need to preserve art and to promote it. The principles in the present code (like treating marriage as a sacred institution), if applied without discrimination, might also bring within their mischief Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and, for that matter, parts of the Mahabharata itself. One of the most curious features of the whole approach of the censors is that, unlike the artist, they are obsessed with sex. If a case can be made out for pre-censorship, it will be made out more to restrict plays which arouse religious or communal hatred. Unfortunately, our censors work like Pope Paul IV who ordered the angels of Michelangelo in the Last Judgement to have discreet draperies painted over them so that they wouldn’t be seen in their naked splendour. This approach is particularly ironic because India has a strong tradition of a frank recognition of kama as one of the ends of life, shringara as a classical rasa in literature and maithuna as a known door to liberation.

This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.