How Satyajit Ray's Sikkim documentary became a victim of state-sponsored censorship

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Jan,28 2018 11:15:11 IST

Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

Censorship in the arts is not a new thing. It has always existed and will continue to do so – as long as the powers to be are unable to separate their own vested interests from the creative freedom of our artists. Even the most magnificent painters, the most celebrated writers, the finest poets and the greatest filmmakers of all times have had to bear the brunt of this evil menace. And although he was smart enough to make even the most scathing commentary on the socio-political situation of his times without ruffling those in power, there is at least one known instance when even a legend like Satyajit Ray had had to be a victim of state sponsored censorship. Today, we are going to talk about Ray’s magnificent documentary titled Sikkim, which, over a period of almost 40 years, was cut, chopped and finally banned by not one but two nations.

Stills from Satyajit Ray's Sikkim. YouTube screengrabs

Stills from Satyajit Ray's Sikkim. YouTube screengrabs

Sikkim was not always a part of India. It used to be an independent nation, ruled by a Chogyal (or King).  In 1971, in a bid to let the world know about their tiny state, the Chogyal Palden Thondhup Namgyal, and his Gyalmo (or Queen Consort) – an American lady by the name of Hope Cooke – commissioned Satyajit Ray to make a documentary on their nation state. Ray accepted the assignment and made the film – a beautiful and wholesome depiction of the history, terrain, flora, fauna, art, culture and the people of Sikkim.

Unfortunately, the Chogyal was not happy with the final cut of the film – responding discontentedly to the poverty of the Sikkimese people that Ray had chosen to show in the film. Those scenes were cut out of the film. Then came the annexation of Sikkim by the Indian government. Technically speaking, it was not an annexation. After India attained independence from the British and moved to become a democracy, a freedom movement began to take shape in Sikkim too – with the objective of replacing its monarchy with a democratic government. The Chogyal sought help from India to thumb down the movement, and in the ensuing rush to compete with China, India signed a treaty with the Chogyal in 1950, to grant Sikkim the status of an Indian protectorate.

For two long decades, the ruler of Sikkim staved off India’s continuous attempts of a formal annexation, until in 1975, he gave in and opted to make Sikkim a state of the Indian Republic. The moment Sikkim became a part of India, the Indian government banned Ray’s documentary. And it was not until September 2010 that the documentary resurfaced, when the ban was finally lifted by the Ministry of External Affairs. The film was screened at the Kolkata film festival later that year, and the large audience gathered to watch the film witnessed what a magnificent work of art Ray had created.

The film opens with Ray explaining the terrain of Sikkim – a tiny speck in the heart of the mighty Himalayas, which despite their mammoth stature, are nothing but ‘young mountains’ which have hardly stopped growing. The misty mountains, the melting snows giving birth to mighty waterfalls, the lush green valleys, the roaring rivers and the steep hillsides all create the picture of paradise on earth. Ray then goes on to elaborate upon the rich flora of the land – the hundreds of varieties of orchids and rhododendrons that bloom in a wide range of colours. Then come the Sikkimese people, and Ray spends a considerable amount of time talking about their origins, their religion, their occupation and their habits. We learn how Sikkim has become a melting pot, with the Lepchas, the Nepalese, the Bhutias, the Tibetans and even the Indian people all huddled together in this idyllic little heaven of a hill state – each continuing to maintain its own identity.

Sikkim is shown as a happy state, where education is virtually free. Towards the end of the film, Ray chooses to focus on the festivals and celebrations of this idyllic state. One of them is a ceremonial Lama Dance – where masked Lamas dance in circles to celebrate the warding off of evil spirits. At the end of the Tibetan year, the gates to the royal palace grounds are thrown open and a fun fest takes place, where bouts of gambling, sessions of drinking and playful mirth abound. But amidst all this, the disparity in income and well-being is not lost to the discerning eyes of the keen observer.

Soumendu Ray’s camera captures the sights of the land with great affection. Consider a white wall of mist, and a ropeway car slowly emerging out of it, with a worker standing on its edge dangerously, and yet with sure footing – creating a visual marvel, only to be followed by another, more poetic scene of raindrops sliding down a slanted telegraph wire. Or the giggling faces of children as they walk to their school, or of peasants as they arrange their wares on a Sunday morning in the middle of the town market in Gangtok, the mighty deity of Kanchenjungha looking down upon them.

Witnessing these scenes, there’s only one thought that comes to mind – if what remains of the documentary is so visually stunning, how beautiful must the whole film have been?

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.

Updated Date: Jan 28, 2018 11:15 AM