March 16, 2008

"Jodha Akbar" and street censorship

[Reproduced from Magazine Section / The Hindu, March 16, 2008]

Against street censorship
The recent violence in some States over “Jodhaa Akbar” raises the question: Should public intolerance be allowed to hijack a medium that is exclusively the director’s space?
Photo: PTI

No space for a rational, public discourse: Emotional reactions against the film "Jodhaa Akbar".
In his latest offering “Jodhaa Akbar” (released February 15, 2008), director Ashutosh Gowarikar made a savvy decision in focusing on the religious tensions between Akbar’s court, full of traditional Islamists, and the Hindu Rajput c ulture of Jodhaa. Without taking sides, the maverick filmmaker wisely portrays Akbar as a secular force who wants to see “Hindustan’s” great religions coexist side by side. However, despite Gowarikar’s effective efforts in maintaining that balance, there was seen a streak of intolerance towards what some claim to be an inaccurate, rehashed version of historical facts.

Even before its release, the film invited the ire of certain groups and was subsequently banned in several States. Noted historians have claimed that the basis of the movie, the relationship between Jodhaa and Akbar, is completely faulty and incorrect. The Rajput groups of India are arguing that the name Jodhaa was the name of Jehangir’s wife.

Considering that Indian films are X-rayed by the stringent Indian Censor Board, is it appropriate for films to be subjected to further censorship demands and bans based on public intolerance? After all, should not the Censors be the ultimate authority in deciding what content is suitable for public viewing?

Against freedom of expression

This new trend of power in the hands of the people denies the filmmaker his/ her right to freedom of expression. A film is a director’s medium and if the director is not permitted to freely express his/ her interpretation of a certain event through the cinematic medium, what further motivation would highly acclaimed directors have in delivering further quality products to the audience?

Gowarikar, and his team, allegedly spent years preparing for the film, researching the period, and taking pains to ensure that its cultural depictions were correct (in having Jodhaa speak Hindi and Akbar Urdu, for example). In fact, he never claimed the film to be a biopic. In all his interviews, he always maintained that it is a fiction based on historical events. But in spite of this disclaimer, the film has invited the wrath of protestors all over the country and even NRI audiences all over the world. These NRI groups have gone a step further and created a website, www.banjodhaaakbar.com , to garner support for this “noble mission” of theirs.

The ban on “Jodhaa Akbar” in certain States of India could be politically motivated. But the NRI audiences are known to be more evolved due to their years of assimilation into more supposedly broad-minded cultures. A member of an NRI group involved in the protests (on the condition of anonymity) said, “Films such as ‘Jodhaa Akbar’ put our Indian culture in bad light by conveniently depicting inaccurate historical facts. It is detrimental for our younger generations because it gives them a wrong insight into the events that occurred in that historical era.”

Contradictory stances

If such is the case, then why do these NRI audiences patronise Westernised Indian films that portray meaningless themes through scantily-clad actresses? This member is quick to retort, “Such films are purely for entertainment value. The audiences forget the film as soon as they exit the theatre. Besides, such issues do not offend people as much as the faulty depiction of Indian history.”

Then, besides the basic censorship guidelines, how does any filmmaker determine what would or would not offend the audiences? And if these audiences start holding films to ransom close to its release, how does a filmmaker bulletproof his/her film? The truth of the matter is that even after taking immense precautions, filmmakers never know what to expect when their films near their release date.

In the current scenario, the most that filmmakers can do is exercise their freedom of expression and be true to their craft. No filmmaker ever has had the intention of hurting anyone’s religious or cultural sentiment; after all these filmmakers belong to the same culture. By giving power in the hands of the people, the nation has conveniently passed the censorship responsibility to the public who are not qualified to pass such judgments. Besides, considering that filmmakers like Gowariker are known to do extensive research before making a film, are they not more well-informed of that historical era than the public who largely base their opinions on media reports before the film’s release?

It is interesting to note that there was no uproar when K. Asif’s 1960 classic, “Mughal-E-Azam” featured ‘Jodha Bai’ (Durga Khote) as the Rajput wife of Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor). “Mughal-E-Azam” proved to be one of the most successful of films with the film seeing a recent re-release in 2004. Till date, the audiences continue to lap up the film without raising a question about the historical facts. This goes to prove that public intolerance is a recent trend, as documented by the protests and ban on films (such as “Fanaa”, “Water” and “Fire”) mainly in recent years.

A reason why films based on historical facts, such as “Sikander” and “Mughal-E-Azam”, escaped the critique of the public was that they were viewed solely for their entertainment value. In those days, the media had not completely evolved, leaving cinema as the only visual medium of entertainment. This led to the audiences being starved of entertainment and appreciating every film not only for its visual appeal but also for the efforts of the filmmakers who put their lives on hold to deliver such a masterpiece to them (“Mughal-E-Azam” was in the making for nine years). Says Kamal Shah, 65, (now a resident of San Francisco), “Those days it was just films for visual entertainment. Now you see moving images everywhere. Television, DVDs, even billboards are playing advertisements in the form of videos. Only in films, are we able to sit in a dark hall and concentrate on the subject matter. Maybe that’s why we have become so critical.”

Audience’s loss

By assuming the role of critic and viewer, the audience is not only denying the filmmaker the fundamental right of freedom of expression, but also deducting from their own viewing pleasure. The audience should realise that any true filmmaker’s (which Gowarikar has proven himself to be) intention is to entertain the audiences. Most filmmakers watch their own films in the theatre after its release to gauge audience reaction and hear that sweet sound of praise at the end of the screening to convince them of a job well done. Never has it been a filmmaker’s intention to spend Rs. 50 crores to arouse public sentiment in the controversial issues of religion and culture. If that was the case, they would rather make a documentary at a fraction of the cost.

India should feel fortunate in having a film industry that has continued to churn out steady dollops of entertainment to sustain the ever-increasing appetite of an audience that appreciates the few magical hours away from the harsh realities of everyday life. Intolerance should lead to a personal boycott of the film, and not a full-fledged effort to deprive unconcerned people of a complete cinematic experience. At the end of the day, unlike history text books, Indian films are known to be made solely for entertainment value — by Indians who are as proud of India’s culture and history.

* * *
Holding an industry to ransom The conventions of Indian films have changed over the years. A large Indian diaspora in English speaking countries, and increased Western influence at home, have nudged Indian films closer to Hollywood models. Film kisses are no longer taboo. Plots now tend to feature Westernised urbanites dating and dancing in clubs rather than arranged marriages. But yet, intolerance still prevails on issues of culture and religion. And if animosity is to be shown towards a celebrity connected with a film, he/ she is punished through his/her film. Paying the price

In 2006, under the direction of the BJP’s State Youth Wing, the Gujarat Multiplex Owners’ Association refused to screen the Aamir Khan-starrer “Fanaa” in order to reprimand the star for voicing his support for the people displaced by Gujarat’s Narmada dam project. Aamir Khan loyalists believed that the star’s personal point of view had no connection with the release of the film. Nevertheless, the film suffered financially during its release week due to one person exercising freedom of expression, which was completely unrelated to the film’s content. In certain cases, public intolerance stems from the opinions of certain political parties against people who hold a view different from theirs on any issue. This entails a two-step process. First, the political party blows the issue out of proportion and makes it a controversy. Then, they give the issue a communal hue to inflame passions among certain sections of society.

Photo: AP

Easy target: Protestors venting their anger against “Fanaa”.

In 2000, Filmmaker Deepa Mehta faced a rude shock a day before the filming of “Water” was to commence in the holy city of Varanasi. She learned that 2,000 protesters had stormed the ghats, destroying and burning the main film set and throwing the remnants into the Ganga in protest against what was ultimately revealed to be false accusations regarding the subject matter. The resulting tensions and economic setbacks led to several years of struggle as Mehta was eventually forced to film “Water” in Sri Lanka, rather than in India.

Political interference

Mehta’s earlier film, “Fire”, had previously attracted hostility from the conservative Hindu community, which objected to her subject matter and portrayal of conservative households in a negative light. Protests and attacks were let loose on cinemas that screened the film. “Fire” had been passed by the Censor Board. It ran in the theatres for three weeks with neither one incident of violence nor one expression of disapproval. After three weeks, a political party decided that the film denigrated Indian culture and it was temporarily banned in India.