When Aijaz Khan, a Mumbai-based independent filmmaker, sought the Central Reserve Police Force's (CRPF) support for his film Hamid, about a young boy in Kashmir who befriends a CRPF jawan by accident, the polic force asked for him to change at least one vital scene in the film.
Where the original script portrayed a CRPF trooper tormented by his role in the death of a Kashmiri teenager, the scene in the final cut of the movie places the onus of the boy's death on Kashmiri militants—effectively inverting the burden of responsibility in a key moment in the film.
The original scene, the CRPF brass believed, could be seen as a reference to the death of Burhan Wani, Kashmir's most charismatic militant in a generation whose influence has only grown after his death. So the scene had to go.
While Indian filmmakers are long accustomed to negotiating the diktaks of the famously arbitrary Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to secure a commercial release for their films, Khan's experience points to the unique constraints placed on Kashmiri film-makers seeking to make art in the context of the Indian military's clear and evident presence.
The CRPF's demands, Khan admitted, had placed him in a quandary: He needed to shoot in key areas in Srinagar, and also needed access to the CRPF cantonments. Acquiescing appeared to be the only way to secure the permissions and access necessary to complete his film.
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"The way I see it, I at least got to make the film in an authentic manner. That wouldn't have been possible without the CRPF's support," Khan said while agreeing that this was a far from ideal way to shoot his film.
A senior CRPF official, in the meantime, told HuffPost India that the force followed a clear and systematic protocol of vetting film scripts in exchange for permission to shoot in sensitive deployment areas.
"We can't be giving you permissions to shoot and use our resources and then have you depict us in a negative light," the official said. Where Khan the filmmaker wrestled with a dilemma, the force saw an opportunity to shape a narrative to suit their ends.
When Hamid's producers Yoodlee films reached the CRPF's office in New Delhi on 19 June this year, they were told to submit their script and after the office went through the scenes, the specific cuts were suggested, making clear that if the conditions weren't met, permission to shoot the film would not be granted.
"If you don't use our resources or shoot at the places where we have a presence or depict our forces, we won't bother," the CRPF official said. "But if you are making a request for our cooperation, we expect the same from you. Those are our conditions for opening our doors to you. We can't allow us to be shown in a negative light," said the official.
The CRPF is not alone in recognising that films play a powerful role in shaping public opinion.
In Hollywood, for instance, the CIA actually created an entertainment liaison office in 1996 and closely works with several Hollywood productions to ensure the agency is projected in an empathetic light. In her book The CIA in Hollywood, author Tricia Jenkins suggests that films such as The Recruit and Zero Dark Thirty created a narrative that exaggerated real-life threats while underplaying the problematic ways in which government agencies dealt with those.
According to a report in The Atlantic, "Since the mid-1990s, but especially after 9/11, American screenwriters, directors, and producers have traded positive portrayal of the spy profession in film or television projects for special access and favors at CIA headquarters."
When HuffPost India asked the CRPF whether the attempt is to suppress the freedom of expression of a filmmaker and control the narrative by painting a rosy picture, the CRPF officially wrote back saying, "We never intend to "control the narrative" of "fictional films", yet we have certain legitimate expectations from the film/documentary producers not to show CRPF in any poor light, especially when they require us to facilitate such shooting in our locations/formations. In the interest of our organization and keeping in view the morale of our force - which is the lead force in maintaining internal security of the country – we do have certain expectations from such film/documentary makers."
When probed further on what these 'expectations' are, the CRPF wrote back saying, "The production team will not shoot any controversial thing/scene or interview which damages the image of CRPF. Positive image of CRPF should be shown in the film. The CRPF will not be responsible for any untoward incident during shooting of the film. The producer will submit a copy of the film etc for obtaining prior approval of the competent authority of CRPF before its screening."
Meanwhile, Khan seemed to have made peace with the situation. When asked if seeking the permissions came at the cost of compromising his artistic freedom, he said, "All filmmakers operate in an ecosystem. While taking creative liberties one must also follow guidelines. I told my story in the best way I could, I'm happy that the sensitivity of the film is touching people's hearts."
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