In the months leading up to the general elections of 2014, filmmaker Kamal Swaroop, best-known for his postmodernist drama Om Dar-B-Dar (1988), parked himself in Varanasi. The eternal city had turned into a burning battleground where the then Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was contesting against Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal to occupy India’s most-powerful political office.
The CBFC has become extremely cautious and it doesn't want filmmakers to talk serious politics. They are a scared lot.
His film on the dramatic electoral dual has been rejected by the Examining Committee of the Central Board of Film Certification as well as the Revising Committee. CBFC chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani told The Indian Express, "My officers told me that the film speaks against all politicians and is pro-Kejriwal in the way it has been shot. The people who reviewed it are experienced enough to know what is right and wrong. They found the kind of language that has been used in the film absolutely unsuitable for public viewing. It is inflammatory and flouts the CBFC guidelines."
Swaroop and his producers then approached the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), the penultimate step towards getting your film out in theatres, but the panel there has upheld CBFC’s decision, which effectively means the film has been banned by the Board.
In a phone conversation with HuffPost India, Swaroop said that the Censor Board fears filmmakers who talk serious politics. “The CBFC has become extremely cautious and it doesn't want filmmakers to talk serious politics. They are a scared lot. As long as the conversation is in the realm of fictional entertainment, it works for them. But when it’s a documentary, they fear a revolution."
The film doesn't take a hardened stand against Modi or Kejriwal or any political party. It holds up a mirror to them.
When we asked him if portions critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed the film in trouble, Swaroop said, “The film doesn't take a hardened stand against Modi or Kejriwal or any political party. It holds up a mirror to them. There was a lot of name-calling that took place during the electoral battle, but in hindsight, they all sound alike, they all sound so shallow, childish and stupid. The face they see in the film is the one they aren’t willing to acknowledge anymore.”
To be on the safer side of the political mudslinging, the filmmaker said that everyone has been given equal footage. “All I have shown is Modi and Kejriwal badmouthing each other, which they did. It’s not like I put words in their mouth. I don’t even have a voiceover/commentary, which is usually a narrative style docu-makers adopt. My intention was to show the election as a grand spectacle of speeches, people, colour and doldrums, a literal dance of a vibrant democracy with Banaras as a metaphor.”
When Kejriwal loses, the Muslim mistrust for BJP comes out strongly… maybe that’s what unsettles the government.
When we probed him further on what could possibly be the reason for the CBFC to be so ticked off, considering the film is so ‘unbiased,’ Swaroop reveals that it could be the documentary’s last few scenes.
“When Kejriwal loses, the Muslim mistrust for BJP comes out strongly. That polarization is pertinent to the film and maybe that’s what unsettles the government. But by denying me certification, you cannot change that fact that the Muslim population was indeed worried about the BJP taking charge,” Swaroop said, adding, “I feel that the government and the CBFC are protecting each other. They never do anything to correct the misdoings of the CBFC. I have lost hope. Even if I go to the High Court, I fear they'll have the same stance.”
The director maintained that he’s an apolitical personality unlike some other filmmakers. “I have nothing to do with politics. I am not Anant Patwardhan or Rakesh Sharma, who are very opinionated. I have no agenda. Neither do I want to get bracketed into their politics; it is the least of my interests.”
The current government is highly insecure and much more dangerous for filmmakers than Congress ever was.
However, he stated that the Congress government was much more “lenient” and “liberal in its worldview” as far as films were concerned. “The current government is highly insecure and much more dangerous for filmmakers than Congress ever was. I think they can afford a more liberal outlook. This film is not going to create a revolution. It's not like I’m making a scathing documentary on the Godhra riots,” he said.
More than just an ideological battle against censorship, Swaroop also has a commercial stake. “The film is shot in beautiful 4K resolution (ultra high-definition), has sophisticated sound-design and my producers have invested quite a lot of money (the budget of the film is ₹40 lakh, quite a steep amount for a documentary film). We need recovery too, which an online release won’t get us,” he laments.
Aren’t online streaming services like Netflix a viable option? After all, they pay a premium to acquire good content and assure a solid viewership.
But Swaroop is cynical.
“My producer is likely to go with an international sale. Netflix also doesn't want to take a panga with the government that has given them the license to run in the country. The biggest problem facing us right now is that everybody wants to be on the right side of the government. Nothing can be done,” he concluded.
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