Short-lived ban on 'political' plays at recent competition underscores Marathi theatre's past brushes with censorship

  • Firodiya Karandak, one of the most prestigious inter-college performing arts competitions held in Pune, announced that it would not be accepting plays that deal with ‘sensitive’ issues.

  • This would have been the first time that a competition in Maharashtra, a state that hosts several such competitions, would have such a rule.

  • The rule prompted a wave of protests online, with many artists and theatre enthusiasts terming it ‘unfair’ and ‘politically driven’.

  • A new condition has been put in place after the ban was repealed which needs every participating play to have a censor certificate.

Firodiya Karandak, one of the most prestigious inter-college performing arts competitions held every year in Pune, made headlines recently when a new set of rules were introduced for the latest edition. In its 45th year, the organisers announced that the competition would not be accepting plays that deal with ‘sensitive’ issues like religion, India’s relationship with Pakistan, Kashmir, Babri Masjid, among others, it was reported.

Reports also featured criticism from theatre stalwarts. Notably, this would have been the first time that a competition in Maharashtra – a state that hosts several such competitions, including ones organised by government bodies – would have such a rule.

The organisers’ reportedly implemented this rule because they believe that young participants aren’t “mature” enough to present plays about the aforementioned subjects, that sometimes actors veer away from scripts and make “inappropriate” additions to the performances. Of the nine plays that qualified for the finals last year, five were rooted in social issues. This rule was reportedly introduced to encourage participants to take up other subjects and to avoid potential opposition. A new category – comedy – was also introduced in this year’s edition; it too was subject to the same rule.

 Short-lived ban on political plays at recent competition underscores Marathi theatres past brushes with censorship

Thus far, obtaining censor certificates was not a norm in competitions, but that changes with Firodiya Karandak’s new rule. Facebook/firodiya.karandak

The rule prompted a wave of protests online, with many artists and theatre enthusiasts terming it ‘unfair’ and ‘politically driven’. Abhay Mahajan, an upcoming stage and film actor, opines that if college students can vote, they should be thought of as capable of expressing their thoughts through art.

For him and many artists in the Marathi film industry who are now popular, such competitions have given a fillip to their early careers. Mahajan recalls plays where politicians were portrayed, where subjects like the fall of the Babri Masjid, Hindu-Muslim riots, the Mumbai terror attacks and movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan were the focus. “We never had an ounce of fear before staging such plays… Probably they [the organisers] want to play it safe and avoid violence and riots which may occur, considering the atmosphere in our country now. But this is unfortunate and kills the spirit of theatre,” he says.

Two days after reports about the rule emerged, the organisers of Firodiya Karandak withdrew the ban on political topics via a circular. This seemed like great news – and a quick victory for the participants and Maharashtra’s theatre at large. The organisers said that their intention was misrepresented and that they hoped new topics would be explored if a restriction was placed on “commonly exploited” ones. Though they have repealed the ban, they have put forth a new condition: every participating play must have a censor certificate.

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In Maharashtra, censor certificates have to be obtained for every publicly performed play by submitting the script to the scrutinising body appointed by the state government. This is a bureaucratic process which takes both time and money. Thus far, obtaining certificates was not a norm in competitions, but that changes with Firodiya Karandak’s new rule.

The censor certificate’s history can be traced back to Morarji Desai’s term as chief minister of the erstwhile bi-lingual Bombay state (which consisted of present-day Mumbai and some parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat). He took note of the rise of the tamasha and kala pathak theatrical forms and the impact they had on their audience. Tamasha, practised by the marginalised, was a folk art that entertained and often employed satirical commentary to critique the government and society. Kala pathaks, presented by socialist groups, were staged to create awareness about social and political evils.

The combined effect of both these theatrical forms was seen as a threat to the government, and they were banned overnight through a circular. The reasons cited were the indecent use of language and gestures (in the case of tamasha) and the security of the artists – especially female artists because of some cases of eve-teasing by goons (with regards to kala pathaks).

Despite drawing flak from artists, the ban remained for several months. A few tamasha artists met the authorities and appealed to them, explaining that this art form was a traditional one practised by their community and that they were dying for want of work. After deliberation, the ban was lifted.

What followed was the formation of a censor board, termed the Tamasha Board, which would scrutinise, edit and regulate the language and content of performances. Submitting scripts became mandatory for public performances, whether they were plays, orchestra shows or dance acts. The board is now called Rangbhoomi Prayog Parinirikshan Mandal, Maharashtra, or the ‘censor board’. The positive consequence of the formation of this board was the abolition of the entertainment tax.

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“I am not surprised by these developments,” says director Sunil Shanbag, who staged a play titled Sex, Morality & Censorship in 2009. This play commented on the ban on Vijay Tendulkar’s "controversial" play Sakharam Binder, which was subsequently lifted, and the revolutionary movement against this censorship in the 70s.

The repeal of the ban that the organisers of Firodiya Karandak imposed may seem like an easy and fast triumph. “But there's no guarantee that the censor board to which scripts will have to be sent won't act in consonance with the organisers' intentions and not give certificates to scripts dealing with 'sensitive' matters. These days every agency toes the Centre's line,” says writer and theatre critic Shanta Gokhale, who co-wrote Sex, Morality & Censorship.

Bhushan Korgaonkar is the co-founder of Kali Billi Productions, a theatre company in Mumbai. He writes fiction in Marathi and his book Sangeet Bari was published by Rajhans Prakashan

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Updated Date: Dec 21, 2019 11:37:05 IST