Unfair and Square: Are Indian film festivals becoming beacons of faux-liberalism?

As film festivals increasingly reject bold content, we find out why they are limiting the filmmakers’ freedom of expression 

Published: 10th November 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th November 2019 06:41 PM   |  A+A-

Stills from Sanal Kumarashidharan’s Chola.

Stills from Sanal Kumarashidharan’s Chola.

Express News Service

There was a time when film festivals were seen as avenues for a filmmaker to showcase—and film buffs to savour—a film in its raw, unedited form. While films which are relatively ‘safe’ —free from sex, nudity, violence, political dissent or any other objectionable content—find it easier to get selected in the festivals, the ones with ‘problematic’ content have started to run the risk of being rejected.

Usually, a filmmaker doesn’t need a censor certificate in order to screen a film at a festival. If the film has been already certified, the filmmaker is required to present the certified version. If it has not been certified, the festivals apply for a censor exemption on the filmmaker’s behalf, which has to be approved by the Information & Broadcasting Ministry. But some believe that a film can be dropped irrespective of a no-objection certificate.

There has been a rise in bias at some of the leading film festivals in India. Filmmakers like Sanal Kumar Sasidharan and Sajin Babu have both recently spoken out against this “faux-liberalism”.

Sanal, who has had his share of unpleasant experiences with film festivals and CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) in the past, most recently with his film S Durga, is strongly against the practice of sending festival-friendly films to the CBFC.

Though his new film Chola was initially selected by the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) sans the censor certificate and warnings, he was later asked to submit it with the above.

When Sanal requested them to treat the film as a ‘festival version’ to get the exemption, he was told that he can’t “circumvent the law”. Sanal then decided to withdraw the film from MAMI. “People go to festivals so that they can watch it without unnecessary baggage.

These festivals are scared to accept certain films because they are either funded by the government or corporate,” says Sanal. Sajin Babu, who recently sensed some animosity towards his new film, Biriyani, agrees, “Festivals like IFFK (International Film Festival of Kerala) and MAMI used to be bold at one point. There was no need for any censoring back then. Things have changed a lot now.”

Raji Krishnan, executive producer of the LGBTQ drama Roobha, says, “It’s easier to ignore the film rather than invite controversy. I’ve also felt that there’s a nexus between production houses and festivals. Their films get included automatically, while many artistically superior independent films are left by the wayside.”

Jayan Cherian, whose film Ka Bodyscapes was accused of glorifying homosexuality, had engaged in a two-year legal battle with the CBFC under Pahlaj Nihalani. Cherian attributes the issue to political reasons, but feels there’s no point blaming a ruling party. “No matter which political party comes to power, somebody will take advantage of an archaic law to curtail the freedom of expression. We need to amend these outdated laws first. Until then, we can only hold debates. But the discussion must go on.”

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