Censorship in Indian theatre: Colonial era law, 'offended' mobs clamp down on thespians' freedom of expression
Previously, censor boards and a colonial law posed a threat to Indian theatre. Today, playwrights are equally concerned about censorious mobs, who follow no rules or logic
In 1876, when plays challenging and subverting the British rule were performed, it led to the formulation of a law called the Dramatic Performances Act, which continues to be in effect.
Maharashtra and Gujarat are the only two states in the country which have a pre-censor board to vet plays before they are performed.
Today, playwrights are equally concerned about censorious mobs, who follow no rules or logic, and against whom the police does not always provide protection.
For as long as theatre has existed in civilised society, resistance to plays has also existed. On 19 February, Bengaluru-based playwright Abhishek Majumdar experienced the ugly side of things when he was forced to cancel a show of his critically acclaimed play Djinns of Eidgah in Jaipur because a right-wing fringe group, the Jan Samasya Nivaran Manch, filed a complaint with the local police about the play’s “anti-national” nature. The play was being staged at the government run-Jawahar Kala Kendra as part of its Navras Performing Arts Festival.
The production Eidgah Ke Jinnat was a Hindi translation of the play, which is originally written in English, and deals with the lives of young people, including security personnel, caught in the midst of militancy in Kashmir. There was a press show on 17 February, followed by the opening show the next day. Though the opening show received a standing ovation, four people left the hall during the interval and said there were objectionable sentences in the play, says Majumdar. “That night, one of them posted about the play on Facebook and somebody else said we [Majumdar and others] should be beaten up. The next morning, the day of our second show, Dainik Bhaskar publishes an article about the play which warned that if the performance took place, things could go haywire.”
The local police intervened and shut down the performance of the play. “They had a long discussion with me and said that they could not guarantee law and order. The fringe group members also came to beat us up, but couldn’t get to us. It was not a mob but a completely well-planned event done for mileage. We couldn’t perform the show and had to leave Jaipur,” says Majumdar during a phone interview with Firstpost. The fringe group also wanted to file an FIR, which the police refused to do. Eventually, a report was filed under the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876, on the basis of which local law enforcement agencies cancelled the show.
An archaic colonial-era law
Censorship of theatre in India has a long history which dates back to the colonial era. It was the year 1872 when the Calcutta National Theatrical Society staged a production of Dinabandhu Mitra’s play Nil Darpan, which exposed the oppression of Bengali farmers at the hands of British indigo planters. It received positive reviews from the regional language press, but earned the ire of the British government, which ordered that the play’s performances be stopped.
Over the next few years, several such plays challenging and subverting the British rule were performed, which eventually led to the formulation of a law called the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876 (DPA). It was brought into force under Viceroy Thomas George Baring (the First Earl of Northbrook).
As per the Act, the state government has the power to prohibit any play or pantomime in a public space which is:
a) of a scandalous or defamatory nature, or
b) likely to excite feelings of disaffection to the Government established by law, or
c) likely to deprave and corrupt persons present at the performance.
This led to a string of plays being banned from performance in India, including Nil Darpan, Anandmath, and Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar’s classic text Sakharam Binder post-Independence. “It (DPA) is completely archaic and we need to get it scrapped or get it thrown out,” says Arundhati Nag, film and theatre actor-director and founder of Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru.
“I do think we need to look at the legal framework because nobody has the right to go and stop a performance. There is so much that goes into making a performance happen. The audience buys tickets, actors have rehearsed, money is spent, and suddenly someone gets up and says we need to stop this performance without reading the script or seeing the play. We need to have something to protect us for sure,” Nag adds.
Censorship in post-Independence India
More than a century after the DPA was promulgated, censorship in theatre continued — and continues to thrive. In October 2018, three different fringe groups objected to the staging of Shiva, directed by Dayasindhu Sakrepatna, at Jagriti Theatre in Bengaluru. The play explored gender and sexuality and is about the journey of a boy who wanted to become a dancer, and how his family did not approve of it. Prior to this, when the play had been performed in the city, there was no objection from any section of society.
“The second time around, the language in the publicity material in the newspaper was changed and the play was described as one about gender and sexuality. They [fringe groups] picked this up, from the Deccan Herald, and landed at the theatre,” describes Arundhati Raja, founder of Jagriti Theatre. “One group actually came into the theatre itself when I was at the police station, and Jagadish Raja was in the theatre foyer with the peon. They said they were from RSS. However, we managed to get them out because they were trespassing our property.”
Even as Raja approached the Whitefield Police Station to provide security at the venue while the performance was in progress, the additional director general of police (AGDP) said they did not have enough manpower to spare. She also tried speaking to the groups and explaining to them what the play was about but finally gave up. “When we meet people like this [right-wing protestors], you cannot discuss anything with them. They have it in their minds that you cannot talk about our gods and you can’t say, 'he is everybody’s god'. The play is not in any way subversive, and if they don’t want to see that, it is their problem. The police officer also asked us not to do the show and warned that the protestors might come into the venue and damage it.”
This ultimately led to the cancellation of the shows. “Without police protection, we could not go on. We can’t take that risk.” explains Raja.
In Maharashtra, Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder was banned in 1974, two years after it was first performed. The Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board, which still pre-censors performances in state, did not give the play a censor certificate, says theatre critic, historian and playwright Shanta Gokhale. “The censor board has a funny rule where they give you a temporary certificate, where if you have planned some shows, you can do those four-five shows. You can’t continue till you get a permanent certification,” she explained, "As far as Sakharam Binder was concerned, a lot of pressure came from the public more than the censor board. The Shiv Sena was out protesting. They wanted to ban it. There were some writers who objected to the play.”
When the final certificate was issued on 23 May, 1972, it eliminated critical parts of five climactic scenes which were crucial to understand the theme of the play and the characters’ development. The producer and director of the show, Kamlakar Sarang, decided to approach the Bombay High Court. “Finally, Justice Kania, who was in charge of the case, saw the play and said there was nothing wrong with it,” says Gokhale.
The common reason given to stop performances of plays in current times is that religious groups or certain communities are offended by the content of plays. However, in the 60s and 70s, this was not the case, says Gokhale. “In those days, it was generally obscenity. The charge against Sakharam Binder was obscenity because of the rather abusive language that the main character was using. There was one scene in which one of the two women changes her sari on stage. That same woman also beats up her husband with a chappal. These were also objected to.”
When asked if such an argument is justified in the performing arts space, theatre directors and practitioners feel it goes against the spirit of freedom of speech and expression. “It’s not valid. People have the right to the kind of plays they want to do. You don’t want to see them, don’t see them,” says Gokhale.
“If anybody has to be banned for inciting violence, it should first be the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, but more so the BJP,” says Majumdar, who is also the director of Bhasha Centre and is known for writing plays such as Muktidham, Rizwan and Kaumudi. “Why should you ban a play? Don’t watch it. Ultimately, the thing is, nobody is forcing anybody to watch a play or read a book. It is a very hard thing to go watch a play for one-and-a-half hour. One has to really look forward to being offended in order to go watch a whole play and get offended. It is not easy to go buy a ticket and watch it. The people who disrupt performances don’t even watch the plays that they are offended by.”
He further adds, “I don’t mind if somebody is offended by my play. As a civil society, people have a right to be offended by my play. Similarly, I have a right to be deeply offended by the things many political parties — particularly the BJP — do. But that doesn’t mean I am going to stop people from giving speeches or lectures or anything of that sort. Why should I do that? Democracy is so only if I allow the person whom I don’t agree with to express their opinion. This is a test of democracy.”
Nag describes an incident from a few years ago, when some people tried to disrupt a performance of Pradeep Dalvi’s Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy at Ranga Shankara. “We had people who came inside to stop the play. I went down and said to them, ‘You cannot ask me to stop the play. We have 400 performances that happen here in a year. If you have a point of view, please make a play and we will showcase that.’ We are not here to stop anyone’s point of view,” she said. Incidentally, in its flagship theatre festival, held every year, Ranga Shankara chose to explore censorship in theatre through the theme 'The Plays That Almost Weren’t' in its previous edition in 2018.
Another complaint members of the theatre community have regarding plays being performed despite protests, is the lack of support from local law enforcement agencies in such situations. “It is very disheartening when we don’t get protection from the police,” Raja says, adding that when she approached the local AGDP when Shiva was not allowed to stage, he asked her to ensure that they don’t have other offensive plays lined up for performance due to upcoming elections.
“Now can you imagine, we are going to have to look at what we do in an artistic scene depending on elections and whether the police can come or not. Sometimes, people feel that the theatre space should say, ‘No, we will go ahead with it.’ But the reality is that when you have brick and mortar buildings, glass and your audience’s safety to worry about, it becomes a different story.”
The rise of the censorious mob
Given the politically charged atmosphere that we live in today, if Sakharam Binder were being performed for the first time, would the censor board in Maharashtra allow it? “I don’t think it would have been passed, especially today,” says noted theatre director Sunil Shanbag.
Shanbag says that the danger today is not so much from the State as it is from non-state players like the censorious mob. “They are the ones who are the real danger. There are no rules applied to them, there is no logic to them. In 1972, when Sakharam Binder was refused a censor certificate from the state scrutiny board and the producer went to court, the judge cleared it on a technicality, not on the grounds of freedom of speech and expression,” he says, adding that prior to the case, there was no process of appeal for playwrights and directors in Maharashtra.
“The State has to follow certain rules, when the judiciary is involved. None of these apply to morality groups. They are the most unpredictable and most dangerous, because nothing applies to them. So there is no point of discussion. Most of them would not have seen the work they are attacking. It hasn’t changed. You haven’t seen a film but you’ll attack it, you haven’t read a book, you’ll ban it. The agendas are somewhat different. It has gotten worse and we succumb to those pressures more than ever before,” feels Shanbag.
Censorship of plays in Maharashtra
Maharashtra and Gujarat are the only two states in the country which have a pre-censor board to vet plays before they are performed.
The reason why Maharashtra has a censor board for theatre even today dates back to 1948, when women performing tamasha were exploited under the shadow of the art. A committee was set up to suggest corrective measures and it came up with the idea of a scrutiny board that would evaluate the scripts of tamashas. In 1951, the Board for Prior Scrutiny of Tamasha came into being. However, it was later renamed Maharashtra Rangbhoomi Parinirikshan Mandal (Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board - MSPSB) in the 70s.
Pre-censorship of plays is absurd, feels Shanbag, whose plays such as Ramu Aur Malik, Club Desire and Cotton 56 Polyester 84 have faced censorship issues with the MSPSB over the years. “How do you pre-censor something that is going to happen live? It is absurd. Are you going to have someone watching every minute of the performance, wherever and whenever it takes place in order to ensure you are sticking to the same 5000 words you submitted in the script? It is absurd. It never will work. I don’t think they even know what they are looking for. It is tokenism. It becomes a point of potential harassment,” he believes.
Shanbag cites an example of when the state censor board had a problem about a living character being referred to in the play Cotton 56 Polyester 84, which traces the history of mill workers in Bombay. He says there was no way the politician, who was the living person, could not be referred to in the play since he was a part of that history. “It is one thing to have an educated discussion, but it is another thing to have to convince people about the basics. It is not the greatest thing, but it is the law. We all follow it and submit our scripts in the hope that somebody who reads it understands what the spirit of the play is,” says Shanbag on the way things have to be negotiated with censor board officials in order to get a play cleared.
Considering the clampdown on freedom of speech and expression, Shanbag also feels that the theatre community should be riled up about it. But there is a section within the theatre community that supports censorship and feels that freedom of speech does not give one the right to say just about anything.
In a bid to combat such state-sponsored censorship, veteran actor and filmmaker Amol Palekar filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court on 20 September, 2016. The case is still pending in court.
The road ahead
While theatre makers agree that censorship has grown in the last few years, they highlight the importance of not indulging in self-censorship just to avoid backlash. “Any artist must remember not to self-censor because there is no greater form of censorship than self-censorship. Fear and art cannot go together,” says Majumdar.
But for Shanbag, it is about developing strategies to subvert the existing system through metaphors and allegories. Referring to Marathi playwright Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar’s 1907 play Kichak Vadh, which used mythological characters from the Mahabharata as an allegory to expose the atrocities of the British during the colonial period, Shanbag says, “It means that you have to say what you have to say, but you find ways to say it that are not necessarily the obvious.”
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