A small, but power-packed word, ‘Azaadi‘ (freedom) encompasses many connotations and possibilities. In 1947, innumerable lives have been sacrificed to attain independence. But today, 69 years later, has this sense of freedom become an elusive entity that we are trying to capture and express through our art?

Cinema has been part of India since before independence. With Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar’s (Save Dada) The Wrestlers in 1899 and Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra in 1913, this industry has flourished. Back then, when India was under the British rule, there were filmmakers who had to fight for their voices to be heard…and yet two centuries later, we seem to be facing the same struggle!

The ‘C’ word

‘Censorship’ and ‘banned’ are words that gained popularity due to movies like Bandit Queen, Earth, and Black Friday and more recently, Udta Punjab. But in reality, these are older than independence itself.

During the war years, prior to independence, was a time when political tension prevailed. Therefore, there was strict censorship regarding political content in cinema and films that ridiculed Britishers in any manner or showcased outright patriotism. These films were either censored or completely banned. Yet there were directors who found a way to present political and social issues in an intelligent and satirical manner (something that we still do!). For instance, during a courtroom drama scene, they would show a picture of Mahatam Gandhi mounted on the wall, instead of a British monarch’s. Though the censor tried to chip out most of it, some tactics made it to the screen.

Have things really changed?

But with India attaining independence, one would believe that things would change. However, it seems that the power to censor films was too good to let go and the national government weaved it into our postcolonial cinema as well! The Cinematograph Act of 1918 that was operating through four regional boards was centralized, thus leading to the Cinematograph Act of 1952 which gave way to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). By the time 1953 rolled in, all stories and scripts were required to be pre-censored. A notable Filmfare editor was quoted saying that this move proposed by the government was going to strangle the industry, with a totalitarian machine which will churn out films trimmed to official patterns. Furthermore, the Illustrated Weekly of India noted, “Every other day there comes news of some picture being banned or cut drastically, often those pictures suffer in which producers have tried to break new ground with subjects dealing with current social problems and matters of national importance.” Hmm…why does that sound so familiar!

Politics, religion and community – Things we shouldn’t talk about  

One of the earliest films to face censorship was much before independence, in the year 1935. V Shantaram, who was considered to be an innovative and ambitious filmmaker, encountered the censorship’s scissors. His film Dharmatma (originally titled ‘Mahatma’) concentrated on the caste system and Brahmanical orthodoxy. Initially, the film was banned as it didn’t sit well with the colonial censor who felt that a sacred subject was treated in an irreverent manner and moreover, the film dealt with controversial politics of untouchability. In fact, the very name of the film, Mahatma, was objectionable to the government and hence, was asked to change (again, sounds familiar?). Shantaram was livid with these demands, but eventually chose to succumb due to various reasons.

A still from Kissa Kursi Ka

A still from Kissa Kursi Ka

Coming to the post independence era, in 1977, a Politician and Filmmaker Amrit Nahata made a political spoof called Kissa Kursi Ka that never saw the light of day. The filmmakers were sent a notice with 51 objections, which lead to a ban. Later that year, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister and the son of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, ensured that all the prints and the master-print were destroyed. So clearly, even after independence, freedom of expression came with a ‘ Conditions apply’ tag.

But things change in the 21st century, right? In 2014, Chandra Prakash Dwivedi’s Mohalla Assi faced many issues. The movie starring Sakshi Tanwar and Sunny Deol gave a realistic view of Varanasi and its ever going commercialization. After the trailer was released, an FIR was lodged against the makers on the basis of abusive language used in the film. On 8th August 2016, CBFC banned the movie thus, repressing another free voice.

Love, Sex and Nudity

Another reason a lot of movies have never been screened is because of their ‘sexual’ content. These are the same movies that have been critically acclaimed in film festivals all around the world. Even after almost 70 years of independence, a simple lip-lock becomes national news. Ironically enough this was not the case in the pre-independence ear. Actors during that time did not shy away from on-screen intimacy. A Throw of Dice (1929), Zarina (1932) and Karam (1933) are some of the movies that showed intimacy. This was until pollination was used to depict intimacy in films.

A still from Gandu

A still from Gandu

Besides kissing, nudity is a huge issue even today. Gandu, the 2010 Bengali film, was basically a rap musical that attempted to capture the life of the protagonist. Though the film was greatly appreciated at the Berlin International Film Festival and Slamdance Film Festival, it was never screened in Indian theaters because of an oral sex scene and nudity.

Sridhar Rangayan’s ‘The Pink Mirror’ talks about gender issues and transsexuality with beautiful clarity. The story explored two transsexuals and a gay teenager’s attempts to seduce a man. This plot line gave the board an excuse to ban the movie. The film was received well abroad and was screened in more than 70 film festivals, but none in our own country.

Recently, in 2015, a Malayalam feature film Chaayam Poosiya Veedu (The Painted House), directed by brothers Santosh Babusenan and Satish Babusenan, was banned as the directors refused to accept any changes. The film contained scenes where the lead was shown in the nude for which it was denied certification.

Movies like Hava Aney Dey and Chatrak (Mushrooms) and many more have been banned in India for political, social and of course, nudity issues. And, yet each of these films and myriad others have gained worldwide appreciation.

The movies mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg, a whole lot of it is still submerged below. Over the centuries we’ve had freedom fighters in Indian cinema who have given their soul to ensure that this art finds its true expression.  And, in this process we have lost ideas and films to history.

Currently, we live in contradicting times because even as we seem to be progressing, there is a certain kind of regression prevailing. The future of our art is delicately balanced and if it tips to the wrong side, the future is bleak.

Therefore, as we celebrate independence, let’s strive to create a cinema that is not tailored and altered to fit limited sensibilities.

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Will the real azaadi please stand up!
As we celebrate independence let’s have a look at the struggle that Indian cinema has had to go through and is still going though to attain true azaadi.