In 2010, a documentary about a young Kashmiri footballer who waited two years for a passport that would allow him to travel to and play football in Brazil just because his father was an ex-militant was initially given an A certificate by the censor board. Just when Ashvin Kumar’s Inshallah, Football was ready to release, the censor board decided to ban the film. Kumar had no choice but to circulate the film privately; he held special screenings and released a password-protected print online. That banned film has now won Kumar the National award for Best Film on Social Issues.
“The film received an award from the same ministry under which the censor board operates,” says Kumar, whose 2004 documentary Little Terrorist was nominated for an Oscar. “It’s comical, really.”
The film was banned because it allegedly shows the government in bad light, probably because Basharat Bashir Baba, the footballer, was refused a passport until J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah intervened. Those who watch the film wonder what is worth censoring. The answer: Kashmir. The documentary is also about life in the valley — militancy, army atrocities and all.
Filmmaker Sanjay Kak, whose documentary Jashn-e-Azadi is about Kashmiris’ struggle for freedom, says this is an “old trick of the sarkar”. “It’s called appropriation! We won’t let you freely show your film, but we’ll give it an award and come off as this shining exemplar of democracy! More than hypocritical, it’s clever.”
The award, Kumar says, reflects how archaic our censor laws are. “The censor board was renamed the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), and its job is to certify films, but they persist in arbitrarily asking for cuts and censoring films. The people working for the CBFC don’t really have a good understanding of politics and social issues. Their views are very narrowly formulated. One can’t go around banning films just because it is about an inconvenient truth,” he says, agitated.
“Take the Salman Rushdie incident,” he continues. “You can’t disallow him to attend a festival just because a small community will be offended. The cops and government saying that they can’t guarantee his safety is ridiculous. It is the government’s job to protect its citizens.” But can the government go around protecting citizens who are deliberately inflammatory in their art? “That’s like saying that the girl who was raped in Delhi last week was in the wrong for not having dressed properly. We live in a democracy. Somebody will always find something offensive. How long can you keep banning things? I too can stand up and protest against the paid advertorials that pass off as news in newspapers and channels. Instead, I exercise my right of discretion. I stop subscribing to the paper,” he adds.
Tired of running from pillar to post to release his film Inshallah, Football, Kumar finally decided not to apply for a certificate for his next documentary, Inshallah, Kashmir: Living Terror. Instead, he released the film online for free viewing for one day on January 26 this year. “But that also meant a huge financial loss for me,” says Kumar. Now, only a password-protected version is available for a few viewers online.
In January this year, Kak was prevented from holding a private screening of Jashn-e-Azadi at an educational institute in Pune after the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) protested outside the institute, saying the film was “anti-national” as it showed the Kashmiri armed forces in bad light. Kak hadn’t applied for a CBFC certificate because he wanted to show the film only at screenings during film festivals, in colleges and for activist groups. “Right now, the censor only works to limit people’s imaginations, to make them timid before the idea that there is a gatekeeper of some kind for all our ideas,” he says.
Kashmir isn’t the only subject to face the censor board’s ire. Any film that could remotely show the government in bad light is banned. Final Solution, a 2003 documentary made by Goa-based filmmaker Rakesh Sharma on the communal riots in Gujarat, was also banned by the board for months before its screening was finally allowed after audiences campaigned against the ban.
The national award for Inshallah, Football, says Kumar, is not the first time the censor board’s diktat has been quashed by an arm of the government. “But this time, it’s the same ministry that has quashed the censor board. I believe an important objective has been achieved through this award.”