OPINION
OPINION

Is It Curtains For Cinematic Freedom?

Most governments want control. Some governments want more control than the others. Some governments want more and more control, but also want to appear democratic. They camouflage this obsessive tendency with this or that fig leaf. However, some governments want absolute control, and they care a damn.

Witness what China is doing in Hong Kong. But Hong Kong was not like the ‘mainland’ – it was not like Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Lhasa, or even Urumqi in Xinjiang — under total control of a well-oiled totalitarian system. Hong Kong was so different!

For all you know, these days it reminds of ‘one hundred years of solitude’ in Hong Kong. It’s a new model of ‘cultural revolution’ enshrined by ‘President for Life’: Xi Jinping. Total control on freedom of expression; not even peaceful symbolism is allowed. They might pick you up if you flash your mobile as a sign of ‘creative dissent’.

Therefore, independent newspapers and media outfits etc, have been shut, or, compelled to be shut, while scores of peaceful dissenters and activists are rotting in jail. Also in prison are editors, journalists, and, at least one media owner. This is a ‘gift’ given to the people of Hong Kong as the mainland celebrates ‘one hundred years’ of the Communist Party of China!

Myanmar, like a good neighbour, has chosen China as a role model. A military junta is yet again running amok after dismantling a fragile democracy, killing hundreds of non-violent youngsters, and putting in prison not only Aung Sang Su Kyi, but pro-democracy dissenters, students and journalists. And since doctors and nurses were the first to protest, some of them too have been packed off to prisons, even as the pandemic rages like a death machine. Thus, many doctors and journalists have gone underground, running secret clinics and solo media-outfits, from nameless locations.

Surely, India is not going the Hong Kong or Myanmar way! So, what are the ‘signposts’ of Indian democracy while we await the third surge of a killer virus?

Stan Swamy, 84, no charges proved, not even interrogated by the NIA for one day, his body ravaged by Alzheimer’s and Covid. Witness his slow, tortuous death in jail, without bail — also called an ‘Institutional Murder’.

Or, remember all the others in prison for no rhyme or reason—young, brilliant scholars, eminent intellectuals and academics, under the draconian UAPA, on what are widely perceived to be fake and cooked-up charges.

Indeed, tomorrow, if a filmmaker makes a movie called ‘A Sipper for Stan Swamy’ — it might run into serious trouble.

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It is not only the obsessive addiction with ‘control’ – the ominous signs are all out there: the concerted attack on campuses, the targeting of dissenters, scholars, journalists, intellectuals, the organized move to capture institutions like the FTII and the clampdown, the rampant use of a British-era law like ‘Sedition’, and the way in which sections of the media have become relentless perpetrators of fake, doctored news and hate politics — media ethics can go get damned! Or, the manner in which the organized army of trolls operate — in their crass cacophony, in tandem with the ultra-loyal TV anchors.

A pronounced savagery has come to rule the roost in the dominant political narrative, riding vitriolic, venomous and vicious campaigns, signifying the most bestial dimensions of human nature. This is upfront and ugly – from the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, to the death of photo-journalist Danish Siddiqui. Besides, he is a Muslim.

This was exactly the vile method followed in the systematic targeting of Rhea Chakravarty and Deepika Padukone, and the Mumbai film industry! Look at the language they would willfully use! It’s so predictable — this diabolical, indecent diatribe!

Undoubtedly, democracy in India is currently trapped in a twilight zone. It’s a kind of condemnation for an entire nation. There is therefore an immediate historic context to the uncanny unease in the film industry in India — from Mumbai to regional cinema.

So why has the central government sought comments on the ‘draft’ Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill 2021? And what are the proposals in this new draft bill? 

To punish piracy with a fine and jail term, bring in age-based certification, and, most significantly, empower the central government with the power to seek ‘recertification’ of a film already certified by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

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Several eminent filmmakers have written to the government: “Undermining the sovereignty of the Censor Board and the Supreme Court, this provision will effectively give the central government supreme power over cinema exhibition in the country, potentially endangering freedom of expression and democratic dissent.”

They are backed by scores of film associations and unions like the Producers Guild of India (PGI), Indian Film and Television Producers Council (IFTPC), Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association Associate (IMPAA), Western India Film Producers Association (WIFPA), Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), Indian Film and Television Directors Association (IFTDA), the Associated Chamber of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM), Screen Writers Association (SWA), among others. There is a massive campaign on by academics, filmmakers, writers, artists, etc, arguing that this new proposal should be dropped lock, stock and barrel.

So, why this new draft at all? Why this need to ‘rethink’ certification once the CBFC has passed it?

In April this year, the Centre dissolved the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), where filmmakers could go seeking relief from decisions of the Censor Board which they did not agree with. Besides, there is a considered opinion in the film industry that the CBFC should only do certification, and not censor a film!

There can be many stated and unstated reasons behind this move, and conspiracy theorists can fly to the moon. Control, undoubtedly. But the underlying message could be less subtle: Choose self-censorship as a one-stop-shop, drop subjects which might seem to annoy the powers-that-be, toe the line, follow the dominant code of conduct, accept passive submission in terms of script, story-line or cinematic content, even songs and lyrics, take the safe way out, no creative subversion please, drop/rethink historical narratives with a historical backdrop, if they re-write history, keep your mouth shut, drop/rethink socially and politically relevant themes, avoid controversial current affairs, don’t make films which tell an established truth but they want it to be hushed up, avoid bitter realism, avoid realism, period. Don’t make films which they might not like; indeed, just don’t make films, period.

Said a filmmaker, “Tomorrow, after a film is passed by the CBFC, a group or politician might claim that the film is anti-national and a ruckus is socially engineered. So the government might just come in and block/delay the film. So what should the filmmaker do? Jump in which nearest well?”

Others say this is also a time-tested method to test the muddy waters, to send signals, and to put a leash on the film industry which has been historically secular. Anyway, with so much money pumped in, why should a commercial filmmaker or a mega star choose to not toe the line? As for the offbeat filmmaker making meaningful cinema – she/he can go hang themselves! The sword hangs like McCarthyism in the US during the Cold War.

In such a hopeless futuristic scenario, most good filmmakers will either stop making good films, or make only such films that make the ‘system’ happy. Meaningful, aesthetic or socially/politically relevant cinema just cannot be made in such a realm of authoritarian control, fear and uncertainty. In such a scenario, can a filmmaker really make a movie like ‘Parzania’ or ‘Haider’? Or,afilm on the assassination of Gandhi, for instance? Indeed, if you call a film ‘The Oxygen Cylinder’ with the second surge of mass cremations as a backdrop, they might just choose to get it canned – The End!

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