The latest victim of the Central Board of Film Certification’s prudishness is from one of the most cine-literate states in the country. The CBFC’s regional office in Thiruvananthapuram has demanded the axing of an instance of male nudity from a movie on the ancient performance tradition Kathakali. Debutant feature filmmaker Saiju Kannanaikkal’s Kathakali has a climactic sequence in which an artist removes his attire and crosses a river. The actor’s naked posterior can be seen in silhouette from a distance.

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A protest song featuring the contentious scene.

Kannaikkal reshot the scene on the recommendation of a panel, but when the new version was finally submitted for certification, CBFC regional officer Pratibha A wanted the scene to be dropped. Kannanaikkal has filed a case against the CBFC in the Kerala High Court, and he has the backing of Film Employees Federation of Kerala, or FEFKA, and the Film Employees Federation of Kerala, a confederation of 18 film trade unions.

The CBFC notice.
The CBFC notice.

Kathakali will not make any sense without the disrobing, which represents a symbolic mark of protest against society, Kannanaikkal told Scroll.in. The filmmaker has followed the path taken by the producers of Udta Punjab, who appealed to the Bombay High Court to strike down close to 90 audio and visual cuts ordered by the CBFC. Kannanaikkal hopes that the Kerala High Court will clear Kathakali just as it passed Chayam Poosiya Veedu, which had female frontal nudity, five months ago.

Through the lead character (played by Binoy Nambala), Kannanaikkal hopes to make the point that the traditional performing arts are not only for the privileged. “I have tried to depict the struggle of poor people through an orphan who chooses Kathakali to get acceptance in society,” said the 30-year-old director. “But when that does not succeed, he returns to the Bharathapuzha river, which he considers as his mother, and discards Kathakali as a symbol of discarding the fabricated and deceitful designs of society.”

The filmmaker, who suffers from a debilitating disease called ankylosing spondylitis, said that he was ready for any compromise except removing the climax since he had made the movie with contributions from ordinary people, especially differently abled people such as him.

“The denial of a certificate is a big disappointment to this marginalised section,” Kannanaikkal said. “I had pleaded with the censor board office to give at least an ‘A’ certificate, but Prathiba was not ready to give any certificate. I cannot and will not remove the scene as it is essential to justify the story.”

When the film was initially sent to the CBFC, an examining committee headed by noted film critic Vijayakrishnan Parameshwaran recommended that the nudity be depicted in a long shot. “It was re-shot and blurred, but even that was not acceptable to the censor board regional officer, Prathibha A, who insisted that the scene be completely removed,” Kannanaikkal said. “She said that nudity had no place in the classical dance art. I tried to convince her that the film was not depicting Kathakali but a Kathakali artist, who is disillusioned with the life.”

Prathibha has defended her decision in the local media by saying that she is following the rulebook. Nudity has rarely been permitted in Indian films. She also claimed that Kannanaikkal was staging a publicity stunt (an allegation also hurled at the Udta Punjab producers) and had leaked the story to the media without responding to the CBFC’s notice.

Both Kannanaikkal and FEFKA general secretary B Unnikrishnan have denied the charge. Unnikrishanan said the CBFC’s letter was sent in April, and it has taken the filmmaker over two months to go public with his grievances.

For the trade bodies, the Kathakali case is only the latest threat to creative freedom. “This is not acceptable to us,” Unnikrishnan said. “Nudity was never an issue in the Indian film industry. Many films showing male as well as female nudity have been cleared by the censor board in the past and accepted by people.” Moral policing was an insult to Malayali film viewers, who have the ability to understand a director’s intent, Unnikrishnan added.

The CBFC’s rules and regulations have retained pre-independence and Victorian ideas about sex and sexuality, Kamal Haasan had said in 2001 when swatting off protests against a nude scene in his bi-lingual Tamil-Hindi movie Abhay.

“Ancient India was far more comfortable with sexuality, nudity and sexual assertiveness,” Haasan had said at the time. “The nudes on various temples and monuments including the world-famous Khajuraho are a witness to the bygone era of an honest presentation of sexuality.”