The Right to Freedom of Expression cannot be taken for granted. In recent years we have seen riotous mobs burn books, destroy paintings, attack artists, tear down cinemas, rip apart ancient manuscripts and make a mockery of all our constitutional safeguards.
The official Censor Board now operates under the thumb of an ideologically motivated and increasingly intolerant Central government. In 2002 I faced the brunt of this when 21 cuts were demanded from our anti-nuclear film “War and Peace”. These included demands to delete the fact that Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated by a Hindu nationalist named Nathuram Godse, and all references to the Tehelka arms scandal in which politicians and defence personnel were caught red-handed by a hidden camera in the act of taking or talking about taking bribes. Fortunately in 2003 the High Court ordered that the film be screened publicly without any cuts.
As the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) 2004 approached, the government knew that many films on the carnage in Gujarat exposing the ruling party’s complicity could embarrass it on an international stage. Overnight a new clause was introduced stating that all Indian films would require a censor certificate while foreign films remained exempt.
We were galvanized into action. Over 275 filmmakers organized a Campaign Against Censorship (CAC) and threatened to boycott MIFF. As a result of this popular campaign official censorship was withdrawn, but a backdoor variety introduced through a dubious selection procedure. Shockingly, MIFF 2004 excluded some of the best new Indian films dealing with subjects like the Gujarat carnage, communalism, caste and gender, sexuality and the environment.
We decided that the best way to fight was to screen the “rejected” films. VIKALP: Films for Freedom was born. Many filmmakers whose films were selected for MIFF withdrew their work and these were also presented at VIKALP. Girish Karnad stepped down from the MIFF jury in sympathy. Filmmakers pooled in Rs 1000 each and we found a perfect venue right across from MIFF. The Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan houses the printing press of the Communist Party of India. Their solidarity was unconditional and their hall came free. Acoustic problems were overcome by thick curtains on windows and mattresses on the floor. Volunteers poured in from all over and the buzz was electric. Despite word of mouth publicity we had packed houses every day. VIKALP opened with an excerpt from Sadaat Hasan Manto’s Safed Jhoot, an indictment of censorship and hypocrisy, performed by Jamil Khan, directed by Naseeruddin Shah. From this high we never came down. For 6 days rapt audiences saw and debated over 50 films and participated in panel discussions on censorship featuring Arundhati Roy, Nikhil Wagle and many others.
Across the street every official MIFF bulletin and meeting denounced VIKALP and swore innocence to the charge of censorship. But we were getting across. From juries to filmmakers and audience members, the ranks of the disbelievers kept growing. As they must. For an assault on freedom of expression does not affect filmmakers alone. It is an assault on democracy itself.
10 February 2004