On December 31, 2010, the Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) watched and refused the clearance certificate to my film Sengadal for the following reasons. “This film contains many present political references in a denigrative way and usage of many unparliamentary words. There are some denigrating references of the functioning of the Sri Lankan Government. As the film violates guidelines, certificate to the film is refused.”
This experience has only taught me a lesson that it is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong. When Article 19 of the Constitution says, all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, intimidation of CBFC, which is an ‘attached and subordinate’ organisation of the Ministry of I&B, with the free-to-use scissors on every other film made in this country is disastrous. Is it not evident that censorship has lost its relevance, when people have access to all kinds of visual entertainment over various media? Is it not dubious that CBFC plays the ‘moral police’ just for the films to be shown in theatres.
As a poet and a filmmaker I have been suffering hurdles in the way of free expression all through my profession by extra-constitutional pressure groups like political party goons, ultra left and ultra right ideological outfits, market, religious movements and even academic institutions. My documentary Parai on caste discrimination which runs to 40 minutes suffered 19 cuts by the CBFC in 2004 on the ground the film shall create law and order problems. I joined the Campaign against Censorship/Vikalp — forum of 250 independent filmmakers and detested the cuts and screened Parai at almost 200 villages by alternative means and the film ultimately called for government intervention in the locality addressed in the film by gearing up people’s movements. And now, Sengadal, which is a people participatory cinema has been refused permission for public exhibition.
Sengadal captures the fragments of ordinary lives beaten by three-decade-long ethnic war in Sri Lanka. It unfolds in a fisher village at Dhanushkodi, the southernmost tip of India and talks of the travails of the fishermen risking their lives everyday in the border waters between Sri Lanka and India. Kambippadu, a village in Dhanushkodi, that was washed out by floods caused by a cyclone in 1964 is now a village of ruins and this is the focal place where the fiction unwinds. This place, where simple traditional fishermen ply their trade, is where Tamil refugees land either in boats or as floating corpses. The fishermen of Kambippadu and the Tamil refugees from the Rameshwaram Mandapam refugee camp form the bulk of the artistes in Sengadal.
It was a difficult mission to make a film because Dhanushkodi is a place under constant surveillance by the Coast Guard, the Indian Navy, CB-CID, Q Branch and the Intelligence Bureau as the Sri Lanka is 18 kms away. We overcame all these barriers, natural and man-made, to see Sengadal honestly becomes a portrayal of the unrecognised community, constantly insecure.
What the world knows is that the war for a separate Tamil Eelam was merely bloodshed, violence and terror. But little is known about the struggle of the poor common folk and of the innocent fishermen caught in an internecine war. They are forced to flee a war-ravaged land, battle the sea, and reach India only to confront increasing hostility and an uncertain future.
The lives of the fishermen on mainland India are no different. We learn it from our everyday headlines. They are often mistaken for rebels, spies and smugglers and are beaten, maimed or killed by the Sri Lankan Navy.
I felt that I should not be a silent witness to this discrimination and human rights violation against a vulnerable society. I wanted to register my dissent and share their true story through cinema. When the CBFC stops me from exhibiting my film to the people, it is freedom of expression and right to information which is at stake.
If the government thinks that its citizens are capable of watching thousand and odd advertisements bulldozing the drawing halls of their homes broadcast in hundreds of channels and select which shampoo will bring more lather, if it feels that its citizens can see through headlines and breaking news manufactured by the political mafia-run channels and get their daily dose of ‘truth’ and considers that its citizens are entitled to watch any soap or any television show, can hear any radio programme and browse anything on Internet and remain wise, how come it decides that the moment its citizens buy a cinema ticket they become idiots?
To be eligible for participation in film festivals in India, Indian films need a CBFC certificate while foreign films get away with censorship exemption. The broadcasting ministry has to agree to ‘censorship exemption’ for foreign films. Otherwise, there won’t be foreign films available for exhibition in Indian festivals. But it cannot risk ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘critical’ films being shown at festivals organised by the government. This is stupidity and duplicity at its height.
However much the Indian state machinery wants us to believe that the CBFC carries out certification, in truth it still indulges in censorship in the classical sense. Many independent filmmakers feel that the main censorship law — the Cinematographic Act of 1952 — is archaic and needs a thorough review, especially in the light of rapid changes in the last decade. It is baffling that the political mafia can run their propaganda channels telecasting their rallies and inflammatory footage for hours uncensored but when a filmmaker uses bits and parts of it to show the real side, he/she is denied a screening certificate.
I feel that the censor board should be abolished altogether. What we need is a rating agency, classifying films as being suitable for universal viewing or under parental guidance or only for adults.