Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from sacw.net | @sacw

Kowtowing to the Super-Censors

by Vidyadhar Gadgil, 1 December 2008

print version of this article print version

Herald, 28 November 2008

The fiasco at IFFI over a film by M F Husain highlights the extent to which the state is in the thrall of obscurantist forces, says VIDYADHAR GADGIL

The ’ban’ on the screening of the short film ’Through the
Eyes of a Painter’ by M F Husain at the ongoing International
Film Festival of India (IFFI) has finally been withdrawn.
After four days of what can only be described as theatre of
the absurd, the film was finally screened during IFFI on 27
November. All’s well that ends well, they say. But is it?

It would be unwise to treat this episode lightly
and not draw the appropriate lessons from it. If
nothing else, we have just been treated to a
demonstration of the extent to which the state is
in the thrall of chauvinistic Hindutvavadi forces.

’Through the Eyes of a Painter’ is not a new film. Written
and directed by M F Husain, it was made in 1966, and went on
to win the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at the prestigious
Berlin Film Festival. It was to be shown during IFFI by the
Films Division as part of a collection of films on artists
and writers like Raja Ravi Verma, Amrita Shergill and Mirza Ghalib.

An impressionistic look at Rajasthan through Husain’s eyes,
this film is an important part of Indian cinematic history,
which makes it all the more ironical that it should be
withdrawn from IFFI, which is supposed to showcase the best
of world and Indian cinema. When the Directorate of Film Film
Festivals (DFF) announced the cancellation of the screening,
there was a storm of protest from civil society and artists,
including, of course, the entire filmmaking community.

What followed thereafter was a shameless display of
spinelessness and buck-passing between the various
bodies involved in organising IFFI: the DFF, the
Entertainment Society of Goa (ESG) and the
Government of Goa.

DFF head S M Khan claimed that the film had been withdrawn
following advice to that effect from the Government of Goa.
He then resorted to technicalities, saying that the
"screening was not part of the IFFI but was only part of the
Film Division’s ’Framing Time’ section," and then that the
screening had not been cancelled but only "deferred".

Chief Minister of Goa Digambar Kamat, in his turn, did a
Pontius Pilate, refusing to acknowledge both the screening
itself and its withdrawal. The flip-flops only ended with the
late night announcement on 26 November that the film would be
screened after all, which it duly was on the afternoon of the
27th to anappreciative audience, including DFF Director S M Khan.

As to the cause of the entire fiasco, the Hindu Janajagruti
Samiti (HJS) had written protest letters to the organisers
about the screening, claiming that Husain had hurt Hindu
sentiments with nude paintings of goddesses. The HJS is an
umbrella body of various Hindutva forces like the Sanatan
Sanstha and the RSS, and many BJP members actively support
its activities.

It would be pointless here to condemn the HJS and its stance
— it is what it is, and it does what it does. Neither does M
F Husain need to have his credentials as one of India’s
greatest painters confirmed, nor does the lack of any
substance in the accusations need to be reaffirmed — that
has been done by the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court
of India.

The first issue that comes up is the suitability of
Goa as a location for IFFI. Right from the outset,
the choice of Goa as a permanent location for IFFI
has been dogged by controversy. In 2004, the first
time IFFI was brought to Goa, there was
considerable disquiet about the strain on the
infrastructure in Panjim, as also the way a serious
film festival was being converted into a showcase
and playground for Bollywood celebrities.

There has been much improvement on both fronts over the past
four years, but one question that was raised at that time has
become even more urgent: does the Government of Goa have the
commitment to freedom of speech and artistic expression that
is required to successfully host a major cultural event like
IFFI?

This question was raised in 2004 by documentary filmmaker
Anand Patwardhan. During an interaction that then CM Manohar
Parrikar had with the film fraternity, Patwardhan asked
whether the previous record of the BJP in suppressing basic
freedom of expression was not a big problem. Parrikar had at
that time reassured him.

This promise was belied almost immediately, when the
screening of Patwardhan’s film War and Peace took place to
very low attendance, after those wishing to see the film were
turned away on the pretext that the auditorium was full. It
was alleged at the time that the then ruling party was part
of this attempt to render the screening meaningless.

In 2008 these issues have returned in the form of
the Husain film. Though the ruling party has
changed, it kowtows to the dictates of the
Hindutvavadi censors with the same alacrity that
the BJP did. Whether it does so out of
pusillanimity or because it agrees with the
obscurantist worldview of the HJS is best left to
Chief Minister Digambar Kamat to explain.

Claiming that a fascist fringe group can create a ’law and
order’ problem which the state government cannot handle is a
pathetic display of incompetence. Sources in the state
government stated that if there were to be protest
demonstrations by the HJS outside the IFFI venue, it would
damage the ’image’ of IFFI.

Has the GoG considered the far greater damage that it has
done to its own image by displaying the craven and philistine
attitude that it did in the face of hollow threats? The way
things have panned out, if IFFI continues in Goa it will very
soon be restricted to saas-bahu serials and mythological films.

Not that this absolves the DFF of the blame for the fiasco.
Festival Director S M Khan claimed that they withdrew the
film on the advice of the Goa government because "law and
order is a state subject." Following on this sound principle,
the DFF should have firmly insisted that the screening would
go ahead as scheduled, and that the state government should
live up to its responsibilities and make the necessary
arrangements to ensure that IFFI is not disturbed.

The stated objectives of the DFF are to "promote good Indian
Cinema within the country and abroad; to provide
International exposure to outstanding Indian films; and to
screen in festivals, films by outstanding International
Directors."

Further it claims that "as a vehicle of cultural change [it]
helps to improve the standards of Indian cinema." It would be
appropriate to add a rider to all this: "excepting situations
where something we do gives offence to any bunch of people
capable of writing a protest letter, irrespective of the
merits or otherwise of the protest."

This sad episode shows us to what extent
chauvinistic, obscurantist groups are able to
influence the agendas of the official guardians of
our culture. High Court orders, Supreme Court
orders and censor certificates issued by the
Central Board of Film Certification are of no
value. Now, if an artist is to get his work reach
the intended audience, it is necessary to get the
approval of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and their
ilk. Or so it would seem.