In the last few decades, making films that were critical of the State, of ruling ideologies and of prevailing communal mindsets, I often encountered people who felt that it was alright to show these films in India, but not so good to present a negative impression of India abroad. They specially worried that anti-communal films would incite minorities in India and majorities in countries like Pakistan.
My own experience was the opposite. When people from the minority communities saw my films it actually reassured them that not all members of the majority were inevitably prejudiced and when people from countries like Pakistan saw them, rather than getting confirmed in their conviction about a communalized India, they marveled that films like these could be made and appreciated in India. It increased their admiration for the democratic process in India, which contrasted with the lack of freedom of expression faced back home.
Recent events and trends mark a changing scenario that we can ignore at our own peril. There are many ominous signs to choose from but I will focus on a comparison of two film festivals, one recently concluded in Karachi which I was fortunate to attend, and the other due to take place in Mumbai in February 2004.
To be fair there is a structural difference between the Third Karachi International Film Festival (Kara) and the Eighth Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF). While MIFF is run under the aegis of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Kara is run independently of government, by filmmakers and their friends.
It is commonly assumed that India is the democracy and Pakistan is the dictatorship and one would expect this to be reflected in the contrast between their film festivals. Indeed if one looks at the beginnings this assumption would be confirmed. MIFF (then known as BIFF for Mumbai was still Bombay) was a place where critical voices could be heard and applauded. In contrast Kara when it began in 2000, while independent, was subject to the tentative programming that self-censorship and the worry that Big Brother is watching can bring. The festival was small and only a few Indian films featured. Even this must be seen as an act of defiance as officially Indian films are banned in Pakistan.
Meanwhile back home nobody called for the censorship of critical voices and it was taken for granted that film festivals were places where freedom of expression was guaranteed. Not only were many critical films selected in competition, many of them won awards. To cite just a few examples over the years, Ranjan Palit and Vasudha Joshi’s “Voices of Baliapal” a film about local opposition to a missile site in rural Orissa won a Golden Conch, Ali Kazimi’s “A Valley Rises” a film against the officially sacrosanct Sardar Sarovar mega dam on the Narmada river won a Silver Conch, and in 2002 our anti-nuclear and anti-jingoism “War and Peace” won the Best Film/Video Award.
This year saw a remarkable turnaround. What literally happened was that the Government of India stepped directly into the picture. First they stopped official post-festival screenings of “War and Peace” on the grounds that the film had not obtained a Censor Certificate. Next the Censor Board denied the film a certificate for a whole year until the Bombay High Court ordered that the film could be publicly screened without cuts. Finally, haunted by the spectre of critical films continuing to draw attention, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ruled that from MIFF 2004 onwards all Indian entries to the festival would first have to obtain an official censor certificate!
The film community in India and their well-wishers rose up in protest, supported by a national and international press that spoke out for freedom of expression and against obvious discrimination (foreign films had remained exempt from censorship as the Indian government was apparently only interested in controlling its own dissenting voices). Over 200 filmmakers signed a petition against the censorship clause. Faced by the threat of a united boycott the government withdrew its censorship clause unconditionally.
It was sweet victory. It did not last. But more of that later. I want to describe first what happened at Kara in Karachi last week. I was amongst a large contingent of Indian filmmakers invited of which only a few were able to procure visas in time. In fact I had arrived a few days earlier as part of a 235 strong Indian delegation to attend the 6th Joint Convention of the Pakistan/India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy. As we crossed by road through the Wagah border and then took the train from Lahore to Karachi expectations were high. But no one could anticipate the amazing welcome we received at the Karachi railway station. Outside the station a huge crowd had gathered. A student brass band played, rose petals were showered and pigeons were released as peace slogans rent the air. The conference lasted for 3 days and was a resounding success.
Meanwhile the Kara festival had begun as an unrelated, parallel event. It was a high profile event, headlined by many local papers. Of course the Bollywood personalities amongst us (Mahesh and Pooja Bhatt were the stars this year), drew most of the attention as although Bollywood films are available on vcds and dvds in the marketplace, getting to see them on the big screen and meeting Indian directors and actors is extremely rare for Pakistanis. Officially the ban on Indian cinema continued, but the government had obviously decided to look the other way. We were treated like royalty, wined (yes, even in the land of the pure), dined and entertained with rare music concerts and when Awards Nite rolled along, there were unmistakable signs that a new Pakistan was emerging out of the shackles of the old.
I returned to India a few days ago. The news I hear about the selection process for MIFF 2004 is grim. We all feared that when the government gave in to our threat of boycott and removed the censorship clause, they had an alternate plan in mind. After all censorship was not introduced into the festival this year by accident. There is a pattern to it and an ideology that governs it. Until the courts ruled otherwise, the Censor Board had wanted me to delete from “War and Peace” all reference to the fact that Mahatma Gandhi had been murdered by a Hindu nationalist and that the RSS (backbone of the ruling party of today) had been banned after this act. There is more to hide this year. The government resents all analyses of the brutal mass murders and rapes in Gujarat and the widely reported official apathy/connivance. Consequently, in the absence of official censorship, placing key appointees in the selection committee and circumventing transparency in the selection process can still ensure that sharply critical voices are suppressed.
As filmmakers we had hailed the withdrawal of official censorship while adopting a wait and watch attitude to the selection process. Now the waiting is over. The cat is out of the bag. Several hard-hitting investigative films have been excluded from the festival obviously for the crime of displeasing the ruling edict. Rakesh Sharma’s “Final Solution” a passionate and meticulously researched expose of the politics of hate and genocide in Gujarat is shockingly omitted. So is Sanjay Kak’s “Words on Water” on the struggle against mega dams on the river Narmada, a film that has won major international awards. American Sandi Dubowski’s “Trembling before God” another multiple award-winning film has been excluded perhaps for the crime of dealing with alternate sexuality or because it is also a critique of religious fundamentalism. These are just the films I know about. There are bound to be other notable victims. I only hope that we as a film-making community will stand up as firmly against backdoor censorship as we did when censorship was upfront.
But for the immediate silver lining we must return to Karachi. Amongst the winners this year were Sabiha Sumar’s “Khamosh Pani” (Silent Waters) a Pakistani film that describes and critiques Muslim fundamentalism. It won a Special Jury award and its Indian writer Paromita Vohra an award for the best screenplay. Our pacifist “War and Peace” shared the Best Documentary prize with Michael Moore’s Oscar winning “Bowling for Columbine” a scathing critique of US gun culture. But the award that for me marked the coming of age of Pakistan was the Best Fiction Film award which went to a Bangladeshi film “Matir Moina” (The Clay Bird) by Tareque and Catharine Masud. Tareque was educated in a madarsa and “Matir Moina” is a loosely biographic account of the traumatic years that led to the bloody birth of Bangladesh in 1971. It depicts the early stirrings of Bengali nationalism, the Islamic fundamentalism in East Pakistan that was created to counter it, and the ruthless repression of Bengalis by the Pakistani armed forces.
For a Pakistani film festival to give this film the highest award is no mean achievement. It means coming to terms with the past. It means accepting responsibility. It means saying in so many words, “We are sorry”.
During the shooting of “War and Peace” I had come across another such act when I visited a girls school in Lahore and filmed a debate on the pros and cons of nuclearization. To start with many girls spoke vehemently and eloquently in favour of Pakistan’s atom bomb. They obviously wanted to impress me, an Indian, with their Pakistani nationalism. As we got to chat with each other over the next few hours and they understood that I was a critic of the Indian bomb, they visibly relaxed and started criticizing Pakistani militarism. By the end, when I asked one girl why she had chosen the pro-bomb argument during the debate, she admitted that it was because the pro-bomb position would get her “more points” and enable her to win. I pointed out that this was exactly what our politicians do. She laughed embarrassedly and said: “I should not have done it, and politicians should not do it either.” Then she added with a shy smile: “Maphi chahati hoon (I ask for forgiveness).”
Anand Patwardhan, The Hindu
26 December 2003