Madhur Bhandarkar’s Emergency-era drama Indu Sarkar has had more publicity than money can buy over the past few weeks. The trailer itself was provocative enough for Congress party members to demand that Bhandarkar show them the movie before submitting it for certification. The irony of demanding pre-censorship of a film that explores the suspension of civil liberties and attacks on press freedom seems to have been entirely lost on the Congress notables.

Indu Sarkar plays out between 1975 and 1977. Kirti Kulhari portrays a woman with a stammer who is transformed by events into an anti-establishment activist. The main villain appears to be Sanjay Gandhi, played by Neil Nitin Mukesh, and other real-life characters include Supriya Vinod as Indira Gandhi.

The Central Board of Film Certification put its own set of demands before Bhandarkar, asking for the muting of words and names, including “Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh”, “Communist” and “Jayaprakash Narayan”. Bhandarkar has said that he will appeal to the revising committee, which is the next level of certification.

A sideshow has been provided by Priya Singh Paul, a Delhi resident who claims that the film, or its trailer at any rate, offends her because she is Sanjay Gandhi’s (unproven) love child.

A movie about censorship being subjected to censorship? This is India, a land of a million ironies.

Indu Sarkar.

The censor board’s objections are part of a larger crackdown on films and documentaries that attempt to capture and critique the realities of Modi’s India. Documentary filmmakers, in particular, have been feeling the heat, with the censor board coming up with new and wholly arbitrary ways to silence them.

Kamal Swaroop’s Battle of Benares (2015), which follows the contest between future prime minister Narendra Modi and Aam Aadmi Party founder Arvind Kejriwal for the Varanasi Parliamentary constituency before the Lok Sabha election in 2014, was denied certification on the ground that it contained inflammatory speeches. (The matter has reached the Delhi High Court.) For An Insignificant Man, directed by Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla, the board asked for no objection certificates from the politicians featured in the film, including Kejriwal, Modi and Sheila Dikshit.

Suman Ghosh’s documentary The Argumentative Indian, which features a conversation between Bharat Ratna Amartya Sen and renowned economist Kaushik Basu, has been blocked with demands that the producers drop the words “cow”, “gau rakshak, “Gujarat” and “Hindutva view of India”.

If Indu Sarkar is permitted, then censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani’s arbitrary diktat that films featuring political personalities need clearance before even being made gets tossed out the window (Indira and Sanjay Gandhi may be dead, but their families are not). The board can always claim that it is being fair – by dragging Indu Sarkar into the freedom of expression debate, it is signalling that it will not permit a movie just because it appears critical of the Congress party.

An Insignificant Man.

The larger message is that filmmakers should simply steer clear of political debates of all hues, whether about cow slaughter or caste discrimination, Arvind Kejriwal or Sanjay Gandhi. The censor board is working overtime on shaping a new kind of cinema, one that is not as apolitical as it is pro-establishment. Any film that questions the official narrative is deemed suspect. By placing numerous obstacles in the filmmaker’s path, the censor board hopes to replace doubters with devotees.

One of the many ironies of the Indu Sarkar debate is that Bhandarkar is openly rightwing and a self-appointed moral policeman, who has rolled out a series of caustic critiques of wealth, corporate culture, corruption and behaviour that he sees as moral turpitude (it includes homosexuality). In all of Bhandarkar’s films, the protagonist (often a woman) is an idealist who is brought up to speed with shocking and seemingly invisible facts of life. Indu Sarkar is being released in the year that marks Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary and at a time when the Bharatiya Janta Party government has never stopped reminding citizens of the Congress party’s perfidy in the 1970s.

Whatever Bhandarkar’s motives for revisiting the period, Indu Sarkar needs to be released unscathed simply because there aren’t enough films about one of the most brazen assaults on democracy in India. Although the Emergency has been documented by several historians and journalists, the number of feature films is abysmally low. The most well-known is a scattershot satire that became one of the most notorious examples of censorship. Kissa Kursi Ka, directed by Amrit Nahta, was made in April 1975 but never released. Vidya Charan Shukla, Sanjay Gandhi’s crony and the Information and Broadcasting Minister at the time, had all the film prints destroyed.

Nahta was a member of the Congress and left after the Emergency to enroll in the Janata Party that briefly ruled the country until Indira Gandhi’s comeback in 1980. Nahta remade the film, using the same script and actors, and released it in 1978.

Kissa Kursi Ka (1978).

The movie is a barely disguised attack on the Congress regime. Shabana Azmi plays Janata, a mute woman who suffers endlessly on behalf of the rest of India. There are references to key members of the Delhi coterie that ran India in those years and corruption scandals, such as the Maruti Udyog car manufacturing company set up by Sanjay Gandhi, his confidante Rukhsana Sultan, who played an enthusiastic role in the controversial sterilisation programme, Indira Gandhi’s hatchet man RK Dhawan and Dhirendra Brahmachari, her mysterious yoga guru. The humour is broad, often crude, and heavyhanded, perhaps in keeping with the pantomime times.

Another similarly unsubtle attack, this time on the sterilisation programme, is IS Johar’s Nasbandi (1978). The movie opens with a dirge for Mahatma Gandhi’s India and includes praises for Jayaprakash Narayan, one of Indira Gandhi’s biggest political rivals during the period. Jeevan plays an industrialist whose standard greeting is “Jai Maruti.” He enthusiastically implements the will of the rulers by organising sterilisation camps (“We get 50 cases a day,” he brags) and demolishing slums.

Nasbandi (1978).

Johar and Rajendranath, as unqualified lawyer brothers, bumble about before setting things right. The movie is careful not to attack family planning – it is deemed important for the country if done right – but the target of satire is as unmistakable as Kissa Kursi Ka.

The best exploration of the period remains Sudhir Mishra’s most accomplished movie, which is unimaginable in the present context. What would the censors make of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005), which names parties and leaders and includes a Naxalite and a Delhi fixer among its main characters? The rightwing cannot claim the movie as its own simply because the screenplay stands firmly for left-liberal values.

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi opens during the early 1970s and explores the intersecting lives of Sidddharth (Kay Kay Menon), Geeta (Chitrangada Singh) and Vikram (Shiney Ahuja). Although Sidddharth and Geeta are lovers, she doesn’t initially share his Naxalite politics, and marries an Indian Administrative Service officer (Ram Kapoor) before finally realising how hollow her life is. Vikram is the most enduring character – the son of a Gandhian politician who becomes a fixer in Delhi, hobnobs with Congress politicians, including a Sanjay Gandhi lookalike (Aditya Bhattacharya), and holds a candle for Geeta.

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005).

The Emergency has also been explored on television in two documentary series, both produced by APB News. Pradhanmantri (2013) profiles the men and the woman who have ruled India since independence, and 7 RCR (2014) goes behind the scenes of important policy decisions and political events. Both series mix interviews and archival footage with dramatisation. Television actor Navni Parihar played Indira Gandhi in both series.

The Pradhanmantri episode on the Emergency.

Several other narratives have looked at the period, such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Kathapurushan (1995) and Sujay Dahake’s romantic comedy Shala (2011). The Emergency has inspired at least two more contemporary films: Navneet Behal’s San ’75, which dropped out of view after putting out a promising trailer, and Milan Luthria’s heist movie Baadshaho, which will be released on September 1. Forty two years after Indira Gandhi trampled over the Constitution, her actions continue to provoke the imagination, but it seems that the lessons from that time haven’t been learnt.