The Spectre of Censorship

A look at censorship woes faced by urban theatre in Mumbai in recent years. This article was filed in July, 2015.

In Chaitanya Tamhane’s National Award-winning film, Court, a throwaway comment about an obsolete sect by a defense lawyer (Vivek Gomber) during case proceedings results in him being assaulted by vigilantes outside an upscale Gujarati eatery, Chetana, in Kala Ghoda.

He was defending Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), a resolute figure modeled on prominent lokshahir Sambhaji Bhagat, whose ‘poetry of protest’ may have incited a sewage worker’s suicide. Through the lens of censorship in the performing arts, the film takes a look at India’s chronically fraught legal system. Mr Kamble’s art of dissent is contrasted with reactionary commercial theatre where the xenophobic baiting of so-called North Indian immigrants passes without censure, and is even relished by the public prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and her family during an outing to the Acharya Atre Natya Mandir in Kalyan. These juxtapositions masterfully set up the worlds on both sides of the proverbial divide, that often create the very flashpoints that lead to censorship.

Vira Sathidar plays lokshahir Narayan Kamble in Chaitanya Tamhaneʼs Court, 2014
Vira Sathidar plays lokshahir Narayan Kamble in Chaitanya Tamhaneʼs Court, 2014

While the situations depicted in Mr Tamhane’s film are fictional, parallels of intolerance are found in Mumbai’s urban theatre. In December 2011, the Maharshi Dayanand College presented Thararli Veet, a Marathi play directed by Abhijeet Khade, based on the annual Pandharpur yatra undertaken by lakhs of warkaris. At one point, 50-odd students took the stage in a stunningly choreographed sequence simulating the scale of the actual event in all its sanctity, even as the play did not shy away from its unsavory facets. The tossing of spiraling saris into the air compellingly symbolized the exploitation of women during the pilgrimage (also explored last year in Paresh Mokashi’s Marathi film, Elizabeth Ekadashi). The play swept the awards at Mrugjal, a collegiate competition for one-act plays that attracts delirious participation. However, a group called the Hindu Janujagruti Samiti took up cudgels against the play (and lately, against Mr Mokashi’s film) citing the ‘hurt sentiments’ of warkaris, and Mr Khade was forced to halt its run prematurely. “My students were with me, even ready to take on the agitators, but not my college,” he says, still harboring hopes of reviving the production.

The same group’s campaign against Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History and Siksha Bachao Andolan Samiti founder Dinanath Batra’s civil suit resulted in Penguin India’s pulping of the book in 2014. Such campaigns are advertised as ‘success stories’ on the group’s website. Apart from Mr Khade’s play, Shekinah Jacob’s Ali J, a monologue on disaffected Muslim identity in contemporary India, was shut down at last year’s Kala Ghoda festival, in February. Earlier threats had seen the play staged at Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara with police protection and unflinching venue support, but later shows in the city’s Jagriti Theatre were cancelled. Ali J’s producer (and performer), Karthik Kumar, quickly mobilised an online campaign to protest the suppression of his play, streaming it on Youtube’s pay-per-view platform, thereby attracting more eye-balls perhaps than ‘full houses’ at the venues that had succumbed to the Hindu group’s pressure tactics — thus far restricted to letter campaigns and police submissions.

A scene depicting the Pandharpur yatra in Abhijeet Khadeʼs Thararli Veet.
A scene depicting the Pandharpur yatra in Abhijeet Khadeʼs Thararli Veet.

Crusades by the Hindu Janujagruti Samiti against so-called bigger players, such as the producers of mainstream films like PK and Jodha Akbar, or even the long-running (and delightfully irreverent) Malvani play, Vastraharan, haven’t yielded similar dividends. The website of its international namesake, the Forum for Hindu Awakening, lists other targets — ‘anti-Hindu’ plays staged abroad like Displaced Hindu Gods by Aditi Brennan Kapil, in which immigrants become stand-ins for Hinduism’s holy trinity — Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva — only inasmuch as ‘displacement, identity, post-colonialism, puberty, are explored through the lenses of creation, survival, and destruction.’ Another focus has been Ganesh Versus The Third Reich, from Australia’s Back to Back Theatre, in which Ganesh travels through Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika. Claims of ‘hundreds’ protesting the play throughout its acclaimed international run, with stopovers at Melbourne, Rotterdam, Los Angeles and Québec, are most likely unfounded. The websites rely on hyperbole to state their cause. The ‘large numbers’ of warkaris who had submitted before Mr Khade, were less than a dozen, remembers the director.

The censor office in Mumbai. Photograph by Tarun Mahilani
The censor office in Mumbai. Photograph by Tarun Mahilani

Such a scenario certainly brings to question the role of a theatre censor board, as distinct from these reactionary fringe groups. One can argue that an indifferent board is better than one that operates zealously. A case can certainly be made for the censor board to expand its role to defend the plays it passes. Currently however, the board does neither. In 2012, as the first performance of my play, Limbo, drew near, the prospect of getting it censored by the Rangabhoomi Prayog Parinirikshan Mandal (the state’s censor board for theatre) reared its head. The play was set in a school hostel, and it was imperative it played to its intended audience of young people. What followed can be described as a bowdlerization of the script by the production team. Cuss words so typical of its Delhi milieu were excised, the burgeoning sexuality of its characters toned down to Disney levels, and the anti-India sentiments of a Kashmiri teenager reduced to wishy-washy subtext. I was assured this was standard procedure, and would expedite the censorship process, and the performance itself would be untouched by the hacking. Indeed, the board returned the script, each page duly rubber-stamped and attested. Usually, no follow-ups are carried out, and ‘script deviations’ only come to light in high-profile cases such as the AIB Roast, which had an NOC from the board based on a script that substantially differed from the material that was ultimately staged. Even without premeditation, this is bound to happen in an art form like theatre where plays rapidly evolve from rehearsal to rehearsal, and from staging to staging. The board itself is located in the midst of a labyrinth of musty old offices in the far end of a compound dominated by the Congress Committee with its large cutouts of latter-day Gandhis. The office is crammed wall to wall with scripts, and the names of its 30-odd members are emblazoned on a display board. A typical turnaround for a script is about a month, although the registration number issued on submission allows for the play to be provisionally staged, even before censoring is actually completed, which is why most groups consider the process to be little more than a bureaucratic exercise.

In 2014, a Right to Information (RTI) application was filed by an individual entity requesting copies of censor certificates of all performances staged in Mumbai from 2011. Under RTI rules, the censor board needed permission from the writers in whose name the play is issued before sharing the certificates. Thousands of letters were sent out, including a few to deceased international playwrights like Thornton Wilder. Akvarious Productions, the group that had staged Wilder’s Our Town, promptly tweeted a photograph of the absurdly addressed envelope. The NCPA, which runs a programme of screened telecasts of international plays and operas, was inundated with similar spurious notices. Because the notices came at a time when a regime change was in the air and l’ affaire Doniger has just broken, several theatre-makers were apprehensive about ostensibly looming new diktats. “I was worried about the implications of the letter and curious to know why the application had been filed,” says Karan Shetty, the writer-director of the Thespo play, Being Sarthak Majumdar. To find out more about the RTI applicant, Mr Shetty would need to file a counter-RTI. Instead, like many others, he wrote back refusing to grant permission. Some gleaned that the agenda behind the application could be mere commerce — having all the censor certificates could potentially allow a profiteer to develop a lucrative sideline of getting performance licenses (another pointless but mandatory piece of paper) issued by the police much more easily.

Prashant Prakash and Siddharth Kumar in Abhishek Sahaʼs Under The Chestnut Tree. Photograph by Supraket Meshram
Prashant Prakash and Siddharth Kumar in Abhishek Sahaʼs Under The Chestnut Tree. Photograph by Supraket Meshram

There are certainly some directors who want to work with the system on their own terms. “I don’t want to remove anything from the script just to get a certificate easily,” says director Abhishek Saha. His play, Under The Chestnut Tree, written by Akash Mohimen and Siddharth Kumar, takes off from George Orwell’s 1984 and deals with a dystopian universe in which the struggle against state-mandated censorship is an important theme, hence Mr Saha’s resolve echoed the spirit of the play. As it happens, in a big reveal, a character is outed as gay. When the script was returned, the offending section had been red-flagged, but a note from a board-member stated that, although homosexuality was a prickly matter, he could see how the narrative hinged upon the particular scene hence no cuts were being recommended. “I was surprised that he had actually gone through the text and given a nuanced opinion,” says Mr Saha, of a process he had considered merely bureaucratic. Of course, there is a double standard in play here, when it comes to English theatre vis-a-vis Marathi theatre, with several plays in the Pune theatre circuit hit by roadblocks — including Yonichya Maneechya Gujgoshti, the Marathi translation of The Vagina Monologues by Vandana Khare, even as the English and Hindi versions continue to be staged, and more recently, Bindumadhav Khire’s gay love story, Purushottam, which remains in limbo after receiving notices from the board in December last year.

The soft-pedaling of the state censorship machinery is perhaps due to urban theatre’s declining influence, and the fact that truly provocative theatre (the kind that could rankle the establishment) is rarely made. Theatre censorship in Maharashtra is still governed by a colonial-era law, the Dramatic Performances Act (DPA) of 1876, a legislation originally enacted to stifle criticism of British rule, as described in this insightful seminar address by Siddharth Narrain: Censorship and the Law. In January 2013, in a ruling valid only in Tamil Nadu, the Madras High Court declared that the staging of plays did not require any sort of police permission (read censorship) and that some provisions under the DPA were unconstitutional. Yet, Maharashtra persists with an out-moded and ill functioning system. Perhaps, it is a matter of time before a fresh legal challenge can be mounted in a state where plays like Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal and Pradeep Dalvi’s Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy (from opposite sides of the tracks) were once banned, under different dispensations. However, whether culture policing by easily inflamed fringe groups can also be brought with the purview of a legal framework is a moot question.

With inputs from Dhamini Ratnam, Shaili Sathyu, Devina Kapoor

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