Ashvin Kumar: The man who won a National Award for a banned film
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Filmmaker Ashvin Kumar is happy to be an instrument of the irony that will see him receive the National Award for Best Film on Social Issues on May 3. The award is for Inshallah Football, which was deemed unfit for consumption last year by the Censor Board. Kumar won an Oscar nomination for his first short film Little Terrorist and is ready to release his ecological thriller The Forest this May. Kumar’s Inshallah Kashmir and Dazed in Doon were other films that ran into controversy for their provocative content.
In a freewheeling chat, the eloquent filmmaker talks to DNA’s Blessy Chettiar about censorship in India, his National Award, The Forest and much more.

Q: A day before you receive your National Award. How does it feel?A: It feels okay. Feels nice, very nice actually. It’s vindication, finally. It also feels humorous. I’m tickled by the fact that the same film was branded not fit for consumption last year.

Q: Getting a National Award and Censors banning the same film. The irony is inescapable.A: I’m very happy to be an instrument of this irony. I have no issues with that. It only vindicates what I’ve been saying all along in a way that I could not have put it in better words myself. The cynical view is that they are now trying to come across as more equal and liberal than they are. Some other filmmakers I’ve spoken to said this is exactly what they do. They first ban it, and then when they see that public opinion is not working in favour, they give it a National Award. I hope we got the National Award on the merit of the film and not because of political reasons.

Q: Isn’t it disheartening when a film doesn’t get a release it deserves? How far are you willing to compromise with cuts, etc?A: No, I will never compromise with cuts on anything that I do. In fact, I just spoke to a friend who said that television rights for The Forest will be difficult to get as it got an ‘A’ certificate. Frankly,The Forest deserves a U/A certificate, where parents can be discreet about whether they want to take their children to watch it or not. There is no frontal nudity. There is a scene in which people are making out.

It actually makes me think about cinema in general in India and why our filmmakers are not pushing the boundaries. The ‘A’ certificate plays huge havoc with your financials. If the society is ready to accept, and clearly it is as you see on the Internet and television, then what is this Censor Board in the middle that keeps restricting? Because of the Censors filmmakers are not free to explore the human condition. Now, sex and love is a part of the human condition, it’s a very important part of cinema also. But constantly we have to show sex in the most vulgar, obscene manner, which ironically gets passed. To show something that isn’t even full frontal nudity, that is just a passionate moment between two people played realistically, the impact is that much higher. It’s not someone gyrating in the camera, so it’s not a plastic emotion, plastic experience. But when a good filmmaker makes a sex scene, it really hits you emotionally, that gets censored…
What will happen is a filmmaker is ultimately going to get very generic. You’re going to get very generic, very mediocre films, which is actually what is happening today. I have never thought about it this way. Filmmakers are applying self-censorship all the time in order to get a U/A certificate. Very few filmmakers actually make fully U films anymore. With the exception of say Raju Hirani and all. Most filmmakers focus their energy on getting a U/A certificate rather than exploring social issues.

Q: Creativity gets curbed in a big way…A: Creativity gets curbed because your producer is telling you you cannot sell the film to television. The ‘A’ certificate is a very clever tool of censorship: like we didn’t ban, we’ve given an ‘A’ certificate. Now, what can you do with an ‘A’ certificate? You cannot show it on television before 11 ‘o clock. No TV channel wants to buy your film. And the return you get is so little, you may as well give it free. So what is your option? Your option is either to forget the TV market and the theatrical market and you go straight to DVD. Or you go international. Huge pity this is.

Q: But the Censor Board has a job too. In a country as volatile as ours, for every expression of free speech, there are thousands waiting to create a law and order situation…A: This is absolute bullshit. There are enough laws in our country to take care of the law and order situation. I mean, if there’s anything surfeit in our country, it’s our laws. Execution is a separate issue altogether. Films is the only art form invented that has a pre-censorship.

This lady Meenakshi Natarajan (Congress MP) has proposed a media bill in Parliament. It aims at curbing media in exactly the same way that Internet is curbed. And the argument by the journalists like yourself is exactly my argument, that there is no requirement for pre-censorship. If something is deemed offensive, please approach the law courts and take recourse there. If you think it’s seditious, same. If you think it’s defamatory, same. It is an absolute misnomer to have a colonial board of information, set up by the British empire and very gratefully taken on by our totalitarian-minded politicians, and it continues to sustain even today.
We have this enormous body which is a complete anachronism, which frankly bleeds the filmmaker to death. It takes about Rs60,000 to censor a film. And everything is paid by the filmmaker so you wonder what the government is paying these Censor members to do. But that is fine, that’s a small point.
Law and order problem are to be taken care of by the police. And if they are incapable, like they were incapable in Jaipur (Literary Fest), then it is the police who has to be held up by the courts.
The job of an artiste is to push the boundaries of the society. Provoke. Create debate. Call out for discussion. If you are restrained from showing basic emotions on the screen, what kind of country, what kind of liberal democracy are we living in?
Anybody who says anything against the Prime Minister, and that is exactly what the (proposed media) bill is trying to do, will be held for contempt or defamation. So this is nonsense, this is absolute nonsense. There is plenty of recourse within the existing judicial system. And there is absolutely no need for this anachronistic body. You are curbing the right to freedom of speech, the right to livelihood. So many rights are being compromised here. The Censor Board is not conclusive at all.

Q: So when a bunch of people decides the fate of your film, is there no way you can argue for what you think is right?A: Inshallah Kashmir was very provocative. It had people talking about the heinous torture by the Indian Army. When I put it up online, it got close to a lakh of hits. One lakh people are enough to start a riot. But there was no law and order problem at the time. So then what was the problem?

I find it below my dignity to argue with a bunch of people who are not even filmmakers. It is humiliating to have a bunch of people who clearly, by the way they are constituted, have little or no connection to the mainstream audience viewing. I wouldn’t mind if you picked up a sample of 50 people off the street who are film goers and asked them which certificate they’d give your film. That would still be more reasonable, more democratic. But who are these Censor people? What are their qualifications? What does he do? Is he the average audience? And if he is not the average audience then why am I being judged by this fellow? On what criteria and guidelines have been issued to this person? Can I please see them? I spent decades trying to develop a career as a filmmaker.

Q: How does the whole thing work?A: There are people who get salaries to watch films and to wield that pen and to just write it off. I used the Right to Information Act to know why Inshallah Football was banned. You will be appalled to read what it said. One person said the characters are not believable. For crying out loud, this is a documentary with real people talking into a camera. How can you write that the characters are not real? They are so assured of their position in life, they take great pleasure in pulling a person down. It works as a bureaucracy and I question the need for it.

Q: How disheartening is it?A: Devastating. I have two versions of the film. They said I’ll have to get the second version censored after the first one is cleared. I don’t have the time, my release is coming up on the 11th. So I’ve decided to just release one version now. It’s a two-three week process and I don’t have the time. And if you miss the screening then it’s another two-week process after that. Then you have to hire a government approved hall which costs you Rs8,000 per hour. So these people can watch and deliberate. So the cost of my film may be Rs15 lakh, but the cost of getting it censored is about a lakh. They treat you like they are doing you a favour all the time.

The money, the hassles are all irritants you can get over.

Q: What is the real problem then?A: The real damage that it’s doing is that when our future generations look back at this period, they will find particularly mediocre films, with a few exceptions. And the reason for that is the Indian Censor Board because they do not allow the financial mechanics of a movie. A producer will not take a chance of not getting a TV or a proper theatrical release. He will push the filmmaker into making less controversial, less provocative films.

Any artist from the beginning till today has always challenged the status quo, that is the job of the artiste, to shed light upon a human condition. If this basic function is compromised by legislation, we are depriving ourselves of a cinematic experience that could have been enormous.

Q: You are so vocal about it. I’m sure other filmmakers suffer the same. Can nothing be done in unison?A: Sadly, there is very little unity in the filmmaking territory because people prefer to get on with their lives, get on with their jobs, feel that they can challenge.

Tell me how many filmmakers there are in the industry today who are not interested in making money and are interested in only making a movie? There are very few. Because the minute the money issue comes into the scene everybody starts compromising. They do it with stars, they do it with unnecessary scenes and they do it with Censors. You see it’s a compromise. Like the filmmakers’ desire to make a film should never overwhelm his integrity. But that continuously happens over here. And I must say particularly in India where everything is stacked against you. Whether it’s the star system or it’s the distribution system or it’s the censorship laws. Everything goes against individual. There’s generic mediocrity.
I’m not interested in the face wash of India Shining, maybe I’m trying to look at India not so shining. It’s all very well to make positive films and make hopeful films about people getting married and extra long wedding videos. That’s all very well, it has a place and the audience who go watch it. My interest is in portraying society in, perhaps, the way you would like to write a novel. If Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh were to write a novel with provocative characters, can you imagine what it would be like for them to submit their manuscript to a committee?

Q: Literary censorship is non-existent in that sense.A: Exactly! Why censor films then? In that case MF Husain who painted Indian goddesses in the nude should be censored. If I were to make a film on the MPs watching porn in the Parliament, would I get it through the Censors? It’s just bloody hypocritical, nonsensical. People have completely hijacked the film community and unfortunately film industry is so completely focused on their one-dimensional revenues that they will never take a stand against something like this. For them it doesn’t make business sense. It makes more business sense to bribe these people and just get their films passed. Or get their filmmakers to make more conservative films.

Has the Academy nomination helped in any way?A: When I got the Oscar nomination (for Little Terrorist), it worked both positively and negatively. It was positive in the sense that it said ‘oh this guy has arrived’. The other positive thing was that it kicked off an entire revolution of short filmmaking in India which was not there before. I’m very happy that many young filmmakers got an opportunity. If he could do it, we also can do it, was the sentiment. The negative is that you start thinking you’re like really cool, and you think you’ve arrived, so that you need to be a little slapped out of it after a while.

Q: Did you get slapped out eventually?A: Comprehensively, yes! With The Forest I was on a very huge budget, international crew, funds. And then nobody wants to buy it in India. People who are in the decision-making positions have never made films. They don’t understand what the clay and dirt feels like. Why a movie works they have no clue. So they are more like a stock-broker who deals in commodities, they don’t deal in products. There is no producer who is trained to think of how I can choose among a hundred films how I can choose that one film which is going to do great at the box-office. And the irony of this whole thing is that the industry does not encourage either through film schools or writing programs, film executive facilities. They continue to make the same mistakes again and again. They continue to back films on the basis of stars, hoping in some hope that that gamble would pay off, like I said stock-brokers, who are gambling… So they try to develop sophistication within that gamble rather than focusing on the real theme, that’s the story.

What is the story? Will an audience want to come and see this film? Why will they want to come and watch this film? All this took a long time to understand after the Oscar nomination.

Q: What are filmmakers to do then? What are you doing to address this since you keep running into trouble with the Censors?A: You can’t. There’s a huge amount of arrogance there, huge amount of insecurity. Because they are so insecure, they know they don’t know their job. I mean, they know, but they cannot admit it. Right? And when a No One Killed Jessica or a Kahaani happens, they don’t know what has hit them. But I’m glad these examples are now more frequent than an exception. Anurag Kashyap, for example, has been very strong in leading this entire charge. He has created the kind of films that will challenge the establishment.

Q: Why can’t like-minded people like you come together to address the situation?A: You are assuming a huge unity which does not exist. You see, at the end of the day they are competing against each other. I, Sudhir Mishra, Ketan Mehta even tried to set up something called Indian Independent Filmmakers Worldwide which was supposed to take care of all this. So far it hasn’t been successful. When the government takes a sounding it takes it from people like Yashraj Films, Aditya Shroff, Shah Rukh Khan. We independents don’t have a voice in either government’s side or in the industry. But every time somebody from this community is given a chance, the films work brilliantly.

Q: Done to death question. How come you decided to make an ecological thriller?A: Firstly because it sounded like an English film. That I haven’t told anybody. You can write that. I like to do things that are new and interesting. This genre does not exist in India. In the film, there is a man caught in a dysfunctional marriage and his wife cannot have a child anymore. They go to the jungle to sort their issues. In the jungle they meet this alpha male, who the couple studied with in college. It’s a dynamic setup for them to have this enormous conflict and through that press, the fall-outs of fear and how we are always constrained with fear as human beings. That’s the more philosophical bit on one level. On another level it just works as a hard-core thriller with an animal trying to chase these people as they’re food. As long as there’s food on your plate, a roof above your head and basic comforts are taken care of, that’s a moment when you as a society start looking at ways how to contribute back to nature.

Q: What are you working on next?A: It’s a love story which has a happy ending, which is unusual for me. No, actually that’s not true, all my films have happy ending, hopeful endings. Hype is a film that examines the life of a 22 year old woman in a city like Delhi, which is particularly charged with male chauvinism and all the most aggressive attitudes that males can have towards women. It’s like a microscopic observation of what it’s like for a single woman who refuses to fall into the stereotype, who refuses to conventionally mould herself into the vision of masculine community.

Q: Will it be more commercial?A: Yes. I’m using a star in the film.

Q: What else?A: Well, there is a proposal to convert Inshallah Football to a feature, which I’m considering right now. That should be done with international actors, so that would be commercial again. But you know, I’m going one at a time, I’m very comfortable with doing one movie at a time.

Q: The background for your films is striking, one that elevates the narrative. While Indian horror films tend to use screechy music for effect. For The Forest how have you tried to maintain a balance?A: I’ve cut a very talented British-based composer to create a classic thriller which was recorded by a 40-piece London orchestra recorded in Abbey Road. I want to celebrate the fauna and wildlife we have while trying to tell a dark story about it. I was persuaded by my sound designer not to do that, not to compromise on the music, so we actually spent a lot of, chunk of our budget on the film music.

 Source: DNA India

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