New York-based director Jayan K Cherian had been trying to get his latest film, Ka Bodyscapes, certified since April 2016.
Cherian, who previously directed the documentary Shape of the Shapeless in 2010 and Papilo Buddha in 2013, was in quite the quandary.
Without being rated by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), he couldn’t release his film in India.
And the CBFC showed no sign of clearing his film.
First, the CBFC issued a refusal to certify the film in April. Then, the board referred Cherian’s movie to a revising committee headed by CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani.
Every time, the film would come up for review, the screening would be cancelled.
Finally, the indie Malayalam film was refuse certification altogether on 15 July. Among the reasons given to Cherian was that certain aspects of Ka Bodyscapes “insulted and humiliated” the Hindu religion.
Ka Bodyscapes explores the intertwining lives of three young people: Haris, a free-spirited painter; Vishnu, a rural kabaddi player and the object of Haris' desire; and their friend Sia, an activist who refuses to conform to norms of femininity. The three characters struggle to find peace and happiness in the city of Kozhikode, Kerala.
While Ka Bodyscapes focuses on the love story between the two men, it also examines ideas of civil liberties and societal demands on women in an Indian context.
Cherian spoke to Firstpost about the struggle to have his film certified:
“After numerous calls and emails from the producer of Ka Bodyscapes, the regional office decided to screen the movie for their revising committee on 5 July 2016, three months after it was referred (to them),” Cherian said. “However, the screening was abruptly canceled by the office the day before it was scheduled — although the producer had made all the arrangements for the screening, spending a lot of money and having sent the assistant director to Chennai to represent him. It was only after much hue and cry, and after a legal notice was sent, that the screening for the revising committee was held on 15 July 2016 at Chennai."
Cherian says the CBFC used every delaying tactic it could to avoid certifying the film (including referring it to the Chennai RO when the Ka Bodyscapes team had approached the Thiruvananthapuram RO). Finally, when the much-delayed screening did take place, his film was banned.
Cherian shared a copy of the letter he received from the Chennai RO (routed though the Thiruvananthapuram office) of the CBFC with Firstpost:
Ka Bodyscapes is hardly an isolated case.
Sridhar Rangayan — who is the festival director of the largest mainstream LGBT film festival in Asia (the Kashish Queer fest) — had run into censorship issues with his movie Gulabi Aaina. This was in 2003.
The CBFC at the time had denied Rangayan’s film certification, on the grounds that it was “too explicit” — despite the fact that there was no nudity, sex or violence in it. What Gulabi Aaina did have, was a story about the interpersonal dynamics between two drag performers.
Rangayan recalled, in a conversation with Firstpost: “They (the board members) were offended because the drag queens in the film expressed their homosexual desire for a man. The audience should have the freedom to see the content they want to and make their own decisions about what it may mean to them. Censorship of any form should be strongly condemned. I sincerely hope the board accepts the recommendations by the Shyam Benegal committee.”
Three years ago, independent filmmaker Rose Venkatesan was denied certification for her first project, Cricket Scandal. The problem: it showcased gay lifestyle. The CBFC gave the film with a ‘U/A’ certificate, despite the fact that there was no nudity or sex in the film.
Independent filmmakers who’ve found themselves at the mercy of the certification process have now turned to online streaming platforms like Netflix, iTunes and Vimeo to showcase their work. But they do miss the chance to have their films screened for the public, and to compete for honours like the National Awards.
While on the one hand, it may seem like we’ve come a long way in terms of freedom of expression in cinema, instances like these do give reason to pause.
“I do think we have come a long way from completely censoring homosexual content — like the movie Kapoor & Sons featured a full length kiss between the male actors,” points out noted LGBT rights activist Jerry Johnson.
For filmmakers like Jayan Cherian and Rose Venkatesan, however, that must seem like cold comfort.