National-Award-winning filmmaker Kamal Swaroop is, currently, somewhat baffled. His upcoming documentary Battle For Banaras, which chronicles the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Varanasi, has reportedly been rejected by two committees of the Central Board Of Film Certification (CBFC, commonly known as the Censor Board).
"Board members have basically said things like 'There is something wrong with the film' and 'There is some mischief in it'," he said, in a phone conversation with HuffPost India. "I am willing to make as many cuts as they want — 10, 20 — but they should ask, no? They are not even doing that. They've just rejected it outright." He added that this was not, to his knowledge, the doing of controversial CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani as he wasn't present at either of the screenings.
The docu, which was shot in Varanasi over 44 days last year, has been shot digitally on 4K format and is said to be among India's biggest documentary films. Inspired by Nobel laureate Elias Canetti's book, Crowds and Power, it is slated to have its world premiere at the Montreal International Film Festival on Wednesday, September 2.
A still from Kamal Swaroop's documentary 'Battle For Banaras'
The seat for Varanasi was contested by four candidates last year, with the final contest ultimately coming down to a two-horse race between BJP's Narendra Modi and AAP's Arvind Kejriwal, who, as we know, are now the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of Delhi respectively. Eventually, Modi emerged the winner, beating Kejriwal by more than 3.71 lakh votes.
The Om Dar-B-Dar (1988) filmmaker, now in his early 60s, says his film is apolitical and simply attempts to capture the carnivalesque atmosphere that occurs in small towns during election season. "I am not anti-BJP or any other party and this is not a film with any sort of leftist agenda," he insisted. "It simply captures the fun, the celebrations, the discussions, and everything else that happened at the time."
"There is no commentary from our side," he added. "We've only stated facts. I'm more interested in the spectacle around it."
In fact, he says that there is not even any mention of the Prime Minister's controversial past, which includes allegations of Modi's involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots at a time when he was the Chief Minister of the state. These allegations have been dropped since 2012 when a team appointed by the Supreme Court gave Modi a 'clean chit'.
Swaroop feels that one explanation for why the censors may have felt the way they did is the cheeky, irreverent tone the documentary has adopted. "The soundtrack uses a lot of those political Bollywood songs — the ones political parties use as their theme songs, where they use the tune but change the lyrics — in various sequences," he said. "This is something even TV channels do, but perhaps the impact that this kind of footage told over two hours might have caused them to think I'm deliberately making fun of our current leaders."
"People have become very hyper-sensitive to such things nowadays," he added, with a chuckle.
His other theory is that the documentary also intimately captures some of the off-guard body language of leaders such as Modi ("He appears very threatening, especially when you see some of his interactions," he said). Moments like these, according to Swaroop, "may stir" something within viewers when they watch the film in a theatre. "Some of the speeches made, some of the things said by the leaders of different parties... you can see how some of it is very childish and illogical."
While the film has definitely not been 'banned' yet, Swaroop is annoyed that he will now have to approach a third committee, the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), and perhaps even the courts to get his film cleared if the former doesn't work out. "I want the film to play at various festivals and use the buzz to try and get a theatrical release next year," he said. "I just don't need these unnecessary delays."
However, as he plans to approach the tribunal next week, he is quite confident that the film will see the light of day. "Yaar, even if I have to take it to the courts, I'm sure that there will be someone who will watch the film and realise that these Censor guys are idiots and there is nothing [controversial] in it," he said.