Sept 22, 2005

Shri Jaipal Reddy

Minister for Information & Broadcasting

8, 30 January Marg, off Aurangzeb Road

New Delhi – 110001


I write this open letter to you with a strong sense of dismay concerning the tightening of censorship controls over independent film-making in the country. I am deeply perturbed about the proposed new policy concerning film festivals and the National Film Awards. Many of these new proposals are deeply shocking, especially since the committee itself was set up to liberalize the censorship regime vis-à-vis filmfests and the NFA. It has been brought to my attention that the new policy:

* Brings all film festivals under the purview of stronger censorship by defining a film festival eligible for exemptions from censorship as one which is either funded by the Government or is affiliated to FIAPF ( e.g., IFFI), i.e., effectively only ‘sarkari’ film festivals!

* Empowers the Ministry to deny exemptions to any film even in these festivals on several grounds – internal security, impact on bilateral relations with other countries, law and order etc. in contravention of well-known Supreme Court judgements on these issues!

* Retains the highly contentious requirement of a censor certificate for entry to National Film awards, despite a boycott by over 200 documentary film-makers for two years – in 2004 and 2005!

Your officials have also proposed denial of exemption to any film that “affects human sensibilities”. Many of us make films in the hope of affecting these very human sensibilities. Under the ‘new policy’, any film can be ‘banned’ from film festivals on this count alone! 

I, like most within the independent film-making community, fail to understand why the UPA government is introducing such totalitarian policies. Though I’m sure you are already aware of the background, but I’d like to underscore the norm/convention by citing the example of MIFF, organized by Films Division, a part of your Ministry. Ever since its inception in 1990, MIFF has been a censorship-free space. The Ministry has never intervened to either reject or include any film in the MIFF line up on any grounds whatsoever. The NDA government tried to make censor certification mandatory for all Indian films participating in MIFF 2004, a move that led to widespread protests within the Indian film-making community as well as a proposed boycott by international film-makers and film festival delegates! Your predecessor, from the BJP, unilaterally withdrew this controversial regulation, though later there was ‘informal’ censorship in selections. 

With the new proposed measures, the UPA government is codifying as policy what the NDA was unable to do – introduce state control in the few rapidly-shrinking spaces in which artists can meet and share ideas. Why is the government afraid of letting film-makers interact and discuss their films in a forum like a film festival, which, anyway, is open only to film festival delegates and not to general public. Sir, if controversial ideas can not be debated even in ‘enclosed spaces’, if even the intelligentsia must seek sanction from state-appointed thought police before sharing their work and ideas, the question that begs to be asked is – under the benign guise of protecting artists from bad thoughts, is the actual agenda a fascist control of all arts? Such actions by your Ministry also make a mockery of the UPA’s stated commitment to Right to Information! 

Many of us believe that the main censorship law – the Cinematograph ACT of 1952 itself is archaic and needs a thorough review, especially in light of rapid changes in the last decade – the spread of TV channels and internet have led to a greater ‘visual literacy’; cinematic images no longer need to be treated as extra-potent images capable of influencing gullible minds and hence subject to a more stringent regulation, which for decades has been the underlying assumption behind the administration and interpretation of the Cinematograph Act both by CBFC and the courts. I have been arguing that the law needs to be liberalized even for general public exhibition; instead even the erstwhile censorship-free spaces like film festivals are being taken away! 

Chief Justice Hidayatullah once observed – “The standards that we set out for our censors must make a substantial allowance in favour of freedom thus leaving a vast area for creative art to interpret life and society with some of its foibles along with what is good.” In another case – Rangarajan vs P Jagjivan Ram and others, the Court observed – “…freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation. It is the duty of the State to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the State. The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression.” Yet your government proposes to use “law and order” as a ground to ‘ban’ a film, that too from a film festival!

Sir, how will internal security be compromised or relations with foreign countries be affected if a film is merely screened at a film festival? Is a bureaucrat’s perception of a threat an adequate reason? To quote the Supreme Court again – “The anticipated danger should not be remote, conjectural or far-fetched. It should have proximate and direct nexus with the expression. The expression of thought should be intrinsically dangerous to the public interest. In other words, the expression should be inseparably locked up with the action contemplated like the equivalent of a “spark in a power keg”….”.  Sir, I am hard pressed to recall an incident from the past where film festival delegates emerged from a cinema hall and indulged in rioting, arson and killings of the kind we have grown to associate with political parties. I assume that your Ministry does not look at film-makers, critics, film students and film journalists as people unable to think for themselves, capable of being led astray by a film. Why, then, is your Ministry keen to tighten censorship in film festivals? Perhaps the new proposals are a result of bureaucratic zeal and at the very least, need to be re-examined. I enclose my suggestions on censorship exemption for film festivals, most of which. were discussed with you last month after you asked me to come to Delhi for a meeting. 

Another major issue we discussed was your commitment to allow dating devices other than the censor certificate in order to determine the eligibility of any film for the National film awards. I enclose my letter of July 14 concerning the withdrawal of my writ petition from the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi in view of your instructions to the Ministry officials. Yet, shockingly, I hear that your own instructions are being flouted by the very same officials in the new guidelines for the NFA! As I had pointed – “Policy-making is primarily a political function while its implementation is the responsibility of the bureaucracy. As the political head is ultimately accountable to the people, it is rightly he who sets the tone and tenor of policies. Bureaucratic obduracy can not and should not pass off as sagacious advice, especially when it seems to either subvert or stall policy-making.” Yet, by accepting the advice of your bureaucracy to retain censorship at National film awards, you will yourself be subverting your own stated policy. Perhaps this is an oversight; I urge you to resolve the issue that has deeply exercised the independent film-making community and has led to a boycott of NFA by an overwhelming majority of independent film-makers in India for two years!

Apparently, your officials attribute the new proposals to the committee set up in early 2005 to examine these issues. Sir, briefly, I’d like to direct your attention to the nature, composition and workings of the committee:

• The “final recommendations” presented by your officials last month had not been ratified by the committee members! In fact, even the minutes of the last meeting were not circulated to them. Yet, despite their being in the dark, their ‘recommendations’ were presented to you as a formal policy draft!

• The committee held all its meetings in Delhi. Most of the film industry representatives (specifically Mr Shyam Benegal and Mr Manmohan Shetty) did not attend any meeting. Though it might have inconvenienced your officials to hold at least a meeting or two in Mumbai, the film-making capital of India, it would have allowed the film-makers and various trade associations to interact with the committee.

• Curiously, most film festival directors/ curators and various trade bodies like IDPA and Hindi/Tamil film industry associations were kept away from this committee.

•  None of the film-makers who have directly experienced censorship recently were invited to the committee. These could have included Govind Nihalani (who had to cut words like Ayodhya and Gujarat from Dev at the CBFC’s insistence) and Anand Patwardhan (whose name was specifically suggested to the Ministry but did not figure in the list of ‘invitees’). 

• Further, organizers of filmfests that have suffered both legal and extra legal censorship recently were not even contacted! These include the Bangalore-based Freedom filmfest (Hindu Jagran Manch-affiliated members of the regional censor board disrupted screenings on July 29, 2004, Sh PP Nair from your Ministry asked the Regional officer, CBFC to lodge police complaints against the film-makers and festival organisers!), Vikalp (organized in Mumbai as a protest against censorship at MIFF 2004) and Prakriti Foundation (faced police trouble in Chennai in 2004) etc.

Many within the film-making community sense a regressive pattern in several actions by your officials ever since the UPA government took over from NDA. Whether it is the issue of police intervention in film festivals or the initial denial of censor certificates to films dealing with politics of hate/ communalism (Parzania, Final Solution, Dev etc) or the appointment of an independent festival Director for MIFF or even the composition of CBFC panels, the UPA government seems to be as committed to maintaining a draconian stranglehold as its predecessor. Film-makers like me facing harassment by CBFC are made to waste valuable time and energy and when finally, we are accorded our legal due, it is touted as a ‘favour’ and trumpeted as a testimony to the secular character of this government. 

Sir, I hope that you are as perturbed about this pattern as most of us. I urge you to intervene and remove the shadow of censorship from filmfests and the NFA. I further request you to order a comprehensive review of the Cinematograph Act itself.


Rakesh Sharma

Cc : 

1. Smt Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson, UPA

2. Sh Prakash Karat (CPM) and Sh A B Bardhan (CPI)

3. Sh S K Arora, Secy, Ministry of I & B

4. All members of the committee set up by Min of I & B

5. IDPA, Vikalp (Bombay) and Freedom filmfest (Bangalore)

6. Anhad, Delhi

Rakesh Sharma

Noted Independent Filmmaker. Organising alternative cinema movement in India. Is a part of Vikalp, a parallel film culture. Made “Final Solution” on Gujrat carnage, besides making several other documentaries. All the films are screened & appreciated worldwide. Based in Delhi, India.