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India: Censorship and Law

by Siddharth Narrain, 8 September 2008

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Seminar, August 2008, No 588

IN 1970 the play ‘Gidh’ (Vulture), directed by Shiram Lagoo and produced by Satyadev Dubey’s theatre company was at the centre of a controversy in Maharashtra, eliciting strong reactions both for and against. The play was based on a Vijay Tendulkar script called ‘Gidhade’. The Censor Board asked for around 150 cuts, mostly because it found the language unacceptable. The producers, however, decided to go ahead with the play, without the censor certificate.1 The Maharashtra Censor Board summoned the producers when it realized that the play was being staged without the cuts they had asked for.

Member of Censor Board (M1): Is it true that you are doing the play without a single cut recommended?

Dubey: Yes

M1: Why?

Dubey: Those cuts are not acceptable to us.

Member of Censor Board (M2): Then why didn’t you say so? We could have had a discussion about it.

Dubey: We had no idea this was possible.

M1: Well, it is.

M2: The Board will meet in another three months time to decide the matter.

Dubey: In this period though, there are some 15-20 shows of the play lined up. What about them?

M1: No problem. You can go ahead with the play. But you will not get the final certificate before a formal decision is taken.

So the play continued, uncensored. After a delay of several months, the Board finally cleared the play with three cuts. Two related to specific words. For instance, the Board objected to a brother calling his sister a ‘whore’. The third cut was visual. The brothers beat up the sister, resulting in her foetus being aborted. She appears with a blood red spot on her sari. The Board felt that this was much too graphic. Incidentally, none of these cuts were part of the original 150 cuts suggested. Dubey then decided that since the Censor Board had objected to the use of a red spot on the sari, he would instead use a blue spot. So the spot remained, and in the advertisements of the play, spectators were asked to imagine that the blue spot was red.2

Besides illustrating Borges’ famous phrase, ‘censorship is the mother of metaphor’, this anecdote also illustrates the ironic character of theatre censorship. Censorship of theatre is on the basis of the script and does not involve the censors actually seeing the stage performance. What does a mechanism of censorship that does not take into account the idea of performance do to the way in which a play is produced?

Legal researcher Lawrence Liang has drawn upon the work of Annette Kuhn to argue that censorship can also be looked upon as a ‘productive’ act. By productive Liang does not mean positive or beneficial, but in terms of viewing and viewing power as being formative or constitutive – which is to say that the law, for instance, not only describes an external reality, but through the description of it, also constitutes it. When the law states what a work of art is, for example, it is not merely defining the work of art as an external reality, an always already-existing idea of art, but also constituting, through this definition, the outer limits of what art can actually be.

The history of the theatre censorship regime in India can be traced to the Dramatic Performances Act (DPA), a legislation originally enacted in 1876 to stifle criticism of British rule. This legislation was enacted in response to a number of plays on the oppressive condition of indigo workers in Bengal staged in the 1870s. These plays caused a lot of anxiety among the British. The most famous of these was a play called ‘Nil Darpan’ (The Indigo Mirror) staged in 1875.

At one of the performances, the European spectators disrupted the play when an Indian character attacked the actor playing the British planter who assaults an Indian actress playing the part of the wife of an indigo labourer. Nandi Bhatia has pointed out that the incident around ‘Nil Darpan’ shows that the British feared that the performative aspects of such cultural production could further aggravate existing tensions, given drama’s interactive relationship with its viewers. While the staged act demanded recognition of colonial abuse, the reaction of European spectators represented anxieties around the ability of theatre to incite audiences.

‘Nil Darpan’, thus is a turning point in the history of anti-colonial theatre in India. Post 1870, theatre assumed a pivotal political role. The British reacted by passing the Dramatic Performances Censorship Act (DPA) in 1876 just before the official transfer of power from the East India Company to the Crown. The DPA performed the function of regulating public drama/theatre performances, thus leading to widespread censorship and suppression by the colonial government over the next five decades.

Theatre has a long history of being used as a tool for mobilizing people, both by the anti-colonial movement pre-independence, and by progressive groups subsequently. Even post-independence, the DPA remains in place, and has been used in numerous instances to suppress any criticism of the nation-building project, is just one among a host of legislations that survived British rule, retained to address the anxieties of the new nation state.

Under the DPA the government is empowered to prohibit a play if the performance is deemed scandalous or defamatory in nature; if it is likely to excite ‘feelings of disaffection towards the government’ or to ‘deprave and corrupt’ the audience. It gives the police the power to enter a house with a warrant and seize material that is suspected of having been used, or is intended to be used for a performance. The act gives state governments the power to prohibit dramatic performances within an area unless a copy of the script is furnished to a designated officer at least three days before it is staged. The idea of the police as theatre critics has a near Borgesian quality, bordering on the fantastic but real enough to be used extensively. The history of the DPA thus can be narrated as the dark underbelly of the history of theatre in the country.

Theatre practitioners like Sudhanva Deshpande have pointed out that in Delhi, while theatre groups have to seek police permission as well as a tax exemption certificate from the entertainment tax authorities, censorship – where every play script is minutely scrutinized – is not strictly followed. In some states like Maharashtra and Gujarat, however, ordinary theatre groups routinely face censorship, every time they have to perform inside an auditorium.

In 1965, the Indian People’s Theatre Association challenged the order of an Additional District Magistrate prohibiting the staging of the play because necessary permission had not been obtained. The Allahabad High Court examined the constitutional validity of the DPA. The government contended that the play was distorted to suit the political ideology of those accused, and that they (the producers) had failed to obtain requisite licenses and abide by the government’s prohibitory notice. In the event, while quashing the order of the magistrate the court noted the alarming tendency of the executive to stifle all opposition; it also held that the procedural provisions of the act were unconstitutional.

Simultaneously the court conceded that the substantive provisions of the act were both reasonable and necessary, even as the power given to the magistrate under this act was arbitrary. It observed, ‘Incidentally, this prosecution demonstrates that there are no adequate and reasonable safeguards against an abuse of power by the executive authority in the Dramatic Performances Act.’

The court also justified precensorship in theatre, saying, ‘The written word takes a long time to reach its readers, but the spoken word is conveyed to the audience immediately. The written word can be confiscated before it has done much damage, but the spoken word achieves its object as soon as it is uttered. The spoken word is also far more inflammable and can engender heat and excite passions in a far quicker manner and thus can become a such greater danger (sic) to the security of the community.

‘There is also finality about the written word, but the spoken word can be disputed and denied. These and other differences make it necessary that in the interests of public order and security, the state should have some power to deal in an emergent manner with the spoken word. The Dramatic Performances Act, 1876 is such a preventive measure.’

Censorship of theatre by the state is only one form of censorship operating today. The banning of the Marathi play ‘Ghasiram Kotwal’ because of objections from the Marathi Brahmin community that their community had been depicted as licentious and the Maratha hero Nana Phadanvis was depicted in an unflattering manner, has been widely regarded as the beginning of a virulent form of censorship from the Hindu right wing. In July 1998, the issue of censorship of theatre in India became the subject of worldwide attention when angry protestors prevented the staging of the play ‘Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy’, leading to the Maharashtra government banning the play following the advice of the Congress government at the Centre.

In May 2000, the Bombay High Court in an important decision indicated that judicial opinion on the issue of theatre censorship is changing. The court stayed an order by the police commissioner prohibiting an ‘emoted reading’ of the play before private audience in Thane in a programme organized by the Hindu Manch. The court in its decision read forms of literary endeavour to be part of the right to life enshrined in the Constitution.

‘Article 21 today protects these legitimate activities which make life meaningful and impart to the quality of life a dimension beyond a mere physical existence. Forms of literary endeavour are therefore, within the protection of the right to life under Article 21. Coupled with this is the right of the wider society and the community to know, to receive information and be informed.

‘The right to information, or the right to know is an intrinsic facet of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. An informed citizenry must have the means to receive news and information, and apart from this, to receive thoughts, perceptions and ideas. Those perceptions and viewpoints may not be in conformity with widely held social, economic and political beliefs. A diversity of viewpoint promotes an ability on the part of the society to exercise a right of choice, a right to decide and the right to form perceptions which lie at the core of the functioning of a democratic system.

‘…No society is static and a vibrant judicial interpretation of the right to life and personal liberty has been hallmark of constitutional jurisprudence in the last two decades or more… If popular perceptions, as perceived by the state, are to be an index of the freedom of those engaged in the fine arts, culture or literary activity, the work of the author and the artist would be reduced to little else but its husk.’

Taking the aspect of the ‘productive’ powers of censorship, how does law, through its interaction with theatre, create a ‘legal theory of theatre’? Can looking at censorship as a reconstitutive moment help reconfigure our understanding of the idea of power itself – reconfigure it away from the traditional sites, especially the institutional prohibitive sites, and help shift focus on the diverse and diffuse ways in which it actually operates?

What is the feasibility of staging a fresh legal challenge to the DPA? Can detailed documentation of how the DPA has been used post-independence in India be used by theatre groups to mount a fresh legal challenge to the dramatic performances act? Can a legal challenge serve as a point of mobilization for a campaign around the issue of theatre censorship?

Can such an attempt at mobilization change the dominant narrative of pre-censorship in India, which in the main has revolved around cinema? Can theatre learn from the experience of documentary filmmakers, whose campaign against censorship has in many ways, revitalized the form of the documentary in India?


1. This incident was quoted by Sudhanva Deshpande in a presentation on ‘Censorship and Theatre’ at the Films for Freedom seminar, New Delhi, 2-4 September 2004.

2. Supra note 1.