Unfreedom: Now not showing

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Unfreedom and the difficulty of screening a movie that features lesbians in India
On a late evening in May, a girl in her early twenties took the stage in a large auditorium at IIT-Bombay. She was faced by a gathering of students dressed mostly in T-shirts and boxer shorts, a post-dusk sartorial choice typical to hostel residents. More than 20 minutes had passed since the movie was scheduled to begin, but the entry doors were still open, absorbing students who kept trickling in. For the third time that evening, the speaker repeated what the students had already been told outside the venue and also in an e-mail circulated by the Cultural Affairs cell: ‘The movie has scenes of artistic nudity and hence is strictly allowed [only] for viewers above 18 years of age.’ She went on to issue an advisory to the more sensitive among the patrons: grab your chance and leave the auditorium now, lest you take offence.

Set in the dual landscape of San Andreas and New Delhi, Raj Amit Kumar’s Unfreedom was first on the list of movies to be screened at this year’s IIT-Bombay FilmFest. The choice of the movie, according to the festival organisers, was occasioned by an intent to explore a lesbian relationship and religious fundamentalism, both of which tend to stoke student interest. It was thus not too surprising to see the repeat warnings have such little impact. It might be prudent to mention that in the aforementioned e-mail circular, a few lines before the disclaimer, the synopsis read: ‘So, be there to see something that you won’t be able to see again in India.’ The hyperbole had worked. The 380-seat hall was bursting with IITians waiting for a private screening.

Ever since Unfreedom was ‘banned’ in India by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in March, the film has been touted by some as a martyr to the cause of freedom of expression. It is a topical badge to wear, considering the increasing criticism the censor body headed by Pahlaj Nihalani has come under. When the controversy broke, Nihalani was quick to point out that the film wasn’t certified under his tenure. But the clamour would not die down, the primary reason being a letter that the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) wrote to the film’s director explaining its stance. ‘It incites baser passions of a ‘different nature’ and has sexual perversions,’ it said, in what is widely understood as an allusion to lesbianism portrayed in the movie.

The refusal of a censor certificate means that the film, with over Rs 9 crore riding on it, has no way of securing a commercial release in a country where half of its narrative is based. “It feels like I am kind of done for in terms of the financial nonsense. [Its investment] can’t be recouped now,” says Kumar, the film’s director and producer, in a Skype interview. Without any hope of a theatre release in India, the crew sat outside the IIT venue with movie merchandise and a donation box.

The on-screen portrayal of lesbianism in India over the years has, at best, been suggestive. Filmmakers and critics interviewed for this article are hard pressed to find instances of female homosexuality that go beyond hints of it that could plausibly be held in doubt. Back against the wall, one can perhaps interpret a song sequence in Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan (1983) as the most likely contender for playing the pioneer’s role; in it, the then screen- scorcher Parveen Babi serenades the empress while painting lyrical-pictures of her paramour.

Eighty years after Dadasaheb Phalke made the country’s first motion picture, filmmaker Deepa Mehta attempted to cross over from homo- eroticism to homosexuality with Fire (1996). At the time of its release, it was hailed as India’s first no-holds-barred take on lesbianism, featuring Sita, a newly married woman, and Radha, her sister-in-law, both named after well-known characters from Hindu mythology. The advisory panel of the Censor Board had as a member Basu Chatterjee, poster-child of middle-of- the-road cinema. Film historian Bhawana Somaaya, who was on the panel at the time, recalls the ambience being taut with tension as the director appeared before the board, ready to draw a dagger to fight their scissors. “When the film was over, Basu told her that there is absolutely no question of the film not getting passed,” says Somaaya. “I was stunned.” They were living in a free country, he explained, where there has to be space for everyone to follow their hearts.

Although passed with an ‘A’ certificate, thus making it accessible only to an adult audience, the film was released without a single cut. After nearly three weeks of a peaceful run, the Shiv Sena, a right-wing political outfit based in Maharashtra, vandalised a suburban theatre screening the movie, setting the tone for other such incidents across the country. In an interview with a daily newspaper, the—now late—Sena overlord Bal Thackeray reportedly declared that lesbianism did not exist in Hindu families.

Under pressure, the movie was referred back to the Censor Board. The tale of Radha and Sita passed its agnipariksha (fire test) yet again, and the movie was re-released three months later. However, it set an undesirable precedent for filmmakers wanting to deal with taboo subjects. Over the next few years, the cinematic narrative on lesbianism stayed largely in the closet, sometimes punctuated by one-off attempts at titillation, like Girlfriend in 2004, which was met with a hostile response from critics as well as zealots who burnt posters and smashed windowpanes in the bastions of religion and cinema—Varanasi and Mumbai.

With the turn of the century, filmmakers began reclaiming the space for alternative cinema. Directors like Onir and Sridhar Rangayan were the first to espouse the LGBT cause with their documentaries and fictional dramas. The resistance to their work wasn’t unexpected; only, this time, it came from the gatekeepers of cinema. In 2007, when Rangayan approached the Censor Board with his movie 68 Pages, dealing with the lives of LGBT community members, he says that he was met with an adverse reception. “They saw my film and immediately gave me an ‘A’ certificate. None of the characters in my movie kiss or even embrace. But they said, ‘homosexuality is not acceptable by the rulebook.’”

This was in stark contrast with the scenario a couple of years ago, when the Censor Board was praised for passing Onir’s My Brother Nikhil, featuring two male homosexual characters in the lead, with a ‘U’ certificate. According to Onir, he had to make a few compromises and play smart to get a clearance. For one, “I consciously named my film My Brother Nikhil, not ‘My Lover Nikhil’,” he says. However, it took nearly six months of haggling with the Censor Board for his next project, I Am, to get its certification. Ironically, the film went on to win the National Award for Best Film in 2012, a prestigious honour bestowed by the Government.

“The job of the Censor Board is not moral policing,” Onir says, “But [it is composed] of people like you and me and a lot of them are homophobes.”

For an endorsement of Onir’s allegation, look at a CBFC circular listing cuts recommended for Dum Laga Ke Haisha, an otherwise squeaky clean crowd-pleaser released earlier this year. The description for Cut No 4 reads: ‘Muted the word ‘Lesbian’.’

Towards the end of November, four members of the Examining Committee (EC) of the CBFC gathered at a single-screen theatre located at the tail-end of Mumbai. It was the first time Unfreedom was to be screened for the regulatory body. “During the screening, I could see them going out one by one, once to take a leak, once to meet someone, once to have tea and snacks,” claims Kumar. At the end, the members refused to certify the movie, citing reservations with its content.

When filmmakers are unhappy with the Censor Board’s verdict, the convention is to approach the Revising Committee (RC) to overturn decisions of the EC. This is how Margherita, With A Straw, an acclaimed drama with Kalki Koechlin playing a bisexual woman with cerebral palsy, managed to convince the Board to retain a 12-second kissing scene with a female co-star, one that the EC had originally asked to be snipped short.

In Kumar’s case, too, the RC was relatively lenient and offered an ‘A’ certificate albeit with a few riders. “I was told to cut the climax entirely. Have you ever heard of that?” asks Kumar. The body also had qualms against full-frontal nudity. Giving in to their demands would have meant cutting nearly six minutes of the movie, which would have delivered a body blow to what the film set out to do. The director decided to approach the FCAT, which upheld the decision of the EC.

Born in Muzaffarnagar, a city he says was the world’s second most violent after Mexico City in his growing-up years, Kumar considers Unfreedom to be cathartic in many ways. After graduating as an engineer from Delhi University, he went to New York to pursue cinema and media studies. The idea of Unfreedom first took root in 2007, and it took eight years before the film’s final cut was ready at the editing table.

Going by its trailer, it is evident that Kumar’s film is a visually slick project. With stalwarts like Victor Banerjee and Adil Hussain on its roster of thespians, the movie plays out increasingly mortifying scenes of an Islamic fundamentalist on a mission to neutralise a liberal Muslim. On a parallel track, a girl embraces her homosexuality and meets with stiff resistance when she comes out to her father. Here is where the two narratives intersect and it is left to the movie title to stitch them together.

At one point in the interview, I ask Kumar how frustrating it is to be the one wearing his shoes, and watch as he clams up for a few seconds. “You ask where the strength comes from; I ask myself, ‘What the fuck is wrong with me?’” he eventually answers.

As he talks about making cinema with a purpose, I realise that it takes quite some pluck to convince oneself of holding a mirror to society. The undercurrent runs throughout our conversation. What you might call ‘negative reactions’, he calls a ‘divided audience’. What you call ‘offensive’, he will term ‘provocative’. When viewers walk out of a screening, it only serves to reaffirm his belief that they have been ‘impacted’. The film isn’t the problem for him; it is the people who can’t handle “the truth”.

Nearly two hours later, as the lights are turned back on, the cast and crew of Unfreedom present at IIT-Bombay are greeted with an unsure scatter of applause. It is an encouraging response in comparison with a screening I would attend a month later at a different venue in the city; on this occasion, as the credits start rolling, the silence is broken only by a collective sigh from the gathering of 15.

Come July, one can expect to see Kumar at the Delhi High Court with a petition to reverse the ban. While he maintains that he is still working on the language of the petition, he says his objective is to start a debate on whether the Censor Board should be allowed to arm-twist filmmakers into compromising their art, instead of simply deciding which age-bracket a film is fit for.

With or without that move, Unfreedom might still be let down for being the wrong movie for the right cause. One can argue that it is perhaps the same reason that several IIT- Bombay students volunteered money after the screening to support the cause. According to one of the crew members, the amounts contributed by some were three or four times the usual price of a multiplex ticket. Yet, the sum of private collections are modest, given the expenses borne to make the movie.

The start of 2014 saw Dedh Ishqiya, a sequel to Abhishek Chaubey’s sleeper hit Ishqiya, create ripples in India with its portrayal of two scheming women who turn out to be lovers. In a much- lauded scene, the director reveals this by depicting their consummation in silhouette. The Censor Board asked for several cuts, and after several back-and- forths, it granted the film a ‘U/A’ certificate. “I can get all angry, but it is the way we are,” says Chaubey, “Besides, if I work in the mainstream film business, I have to make sure that I find a release.” The CBFC, he insists, is simply following a string of archaic laws and the crux lies with a government too inert to update the norms of cinema for contemporary sensibilities. “But then, there are thousands of other problems like floods, suicides, etcetera, in the country today,” says Chaubey. “Why would anyone care about cinema?”