The message from the S Durga scandal at the International Film Festival of India is not meant only for the Malayalam movie’s director, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan. It is meant for every single filmmaker in the country: oppose the Information and Broadcasting ministry at your own peril.
By roping in the Central Board of Film Certification to ensure that S Durga – previously titled Sexy Durga – was not screened at IFFI before it ended on Tuesday despite a Kerala High Court order to the effect, the ministry has exposed just how far it is willing to go to ensure that its diktat prevails.
Earlier this month, the ministry refused to include the film on the IFFI schedule even though it had been picked by a 13-member selection committee. The ministry said that the name of the film’s protagonist Durga referred to a “revered principal goddess in India”.
On Tuesday, the organisers of IFFI informed the censor board that the title card of the movie bore the name S### Durga (instead of just S Durga). This, the censor board said, effectively undermined the decision of the film’s producer to drop the word “sexy” from the title when the movie obtained a certificate in October. This gave the board the reason to revoke the clearance it had given to the film. As a consequence, IFFI decided against screening the movie.
The last time that the Centre followed such a hard line was during the Emergency in 1975. Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi and his coterie did not merely proscribe Amrit Nahata’s political satire Kissa Kursi Ka, which was highly critical of the Emergency. The film’s prints and negatives were destroyed to ensure that it could not be shown.
In the case of S Durga, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has played a much more clever game. By getting the film’s UA rating revoked, it has ensured that Sasidharan will have to queue up for renewed certification, putting his film at the mercy of the censors once again and possibly attracting greater censure than before. A movie that talks about deeply entrenched misogyny – and which few people have actually seen – has been placed on par with an ISIS propaganda video in its imagined ability to disturb communal harmony.
Sasidharan’s greatest crime seems to have been his vocal opposition to the decision in mid-November to drop S Durga from IFFI’s Indian Panorama section. By exercising his right to the freedom of expression through a barrage of combative tweets, Facebook posts and media interviews and insisting on, rather than requesting, the film’s inclusion in IFFI’s programme, Sasidharan violated the cardinal rule of dealing with the ministry: he refused to sit when he was told to.
By waging its vendetta against Sasidharan through the censor board, the ministry has removed any lingering doubts that the certification body will act as a neutral party. The ministry, the IFFI organising committee and censor board have all spoken in a single, clear voice. Legal recourse will continue to be an option for filmmakers, but the belief that censor board staffers exercise their own judgement as per their mandate has been shattered with the S Durga episode.
The censor board acted in tandem with the Centre in a similar fashion in the case of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati. Here too, a specious excuse was created to delay the film’s release on December 1 – an incomplete application for certification.
Right-wing groups, led by the Karni Sena in Rajasthan, have accused Bhansali of misrepresenting history, even though the source material for the film is based on a myth. The protestors have been especially outraged by the inclusion of a dance by the Hindu queen Padmini and rumours of a dream sequence with the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji – even though the director has clarified that the film does not contain any such sequence. Despite this, the governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Bihar have announced their decision to ban the film.
The feint against Padmavati has been backed by a never-ending clamour to ban the period drama. Since threats of sadistic violence against Bhansali and lead actress Deepika Padukone have gone largely unchallenged, Padmavati’s fate continues to hang in balance, at the mercy of forces beyond its control.
This is a new kind of attack on Indian filmmakers – one that comes from inside the corridors of power rather than from external forces. S Durga and Padmavati have been added to the list of offences that are deemed to be committed against Hinduism every day. Only very brave (or very foolish) filmmakers will now attempt to make historical dramas that talk about anything but the valour of their subjects on the battlefield.
Padmavati isn’t the first historical romance to face an onslaught. But Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008), which focused on the marriage between Mughal emperor Akbar and his Rajput queen Jodhaa, managed to be released despite the protests. Would the film have made it past the censors today within and outside the government? It’s highly doubtful.
Can we also expect the quiet burial of the inter-faith romance, one of the staples of Indian cinema? Would Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995), which weathered several storms before it could be released, be attempted today? It’s equally uncertain.
One of the defining images of 2016 was a video by Karan Johar, dressed in sombre black and begging for his movie Ae Dil Hai Mushkil to be released. The film, slated for release in October that year, was a victim of the fallout of the militant attack on an Army camp in Kashmir in September 2016. This led to a clamour for Pakistani actors to be banned from working in Hindi films. Ae Dil Ha Mushkil, which was filmed before the attack, starred Pakistani heart-throb Fawad Khan. The movie eventually made it to the cinemas largely without cuts and disruption.
In November 2017, Bhansali posted a similar video, in which he denied the rumour that Padmavati featured a dream sequence between Khilji and Padmini. Yet, Padmavati is nowhere close to being released – a marker of how much has changed in the freedom of expression debate in a just year.
Kafka meets the Ayatollah – this is 2017, and the year has not yet ended.