At the inauguration of the Kolkata International Film Festival’s 28th edition, Amitabh Bachchan delivered a memorable speech. For the first time, he pointed out that freedom of expression in films is jeopardized now as never before. This is a menace to creating. Big B’s comments were subtle and satirical. Critical thinkers have agreed with what he said.
Navad Lapid’s comments against Kashmir Files being included in IFFI Goa also sparked many controversies. The renowned Israeli filmmaker who was heading the jury at IFFI genuinely felt, badly made, vulgar propaganda films should never get entry into film festivals. Other members of the jury from the international fraternity also voiced the same concern. Actor Anupam Kher, director of Kashmir Files of course spoke against Navad Lapid.
Time and again freedom of speech via cinema has been gagged by various government agencies. The dreaded emergency witnessed the banning of films like Aandhi and Kissa Kursi Ka. Since Kishore Kumar disagreed to follow the dictates of Sanjay Gandhi, his songs were banned on All India Radio. Dev Anand who protested maximum against the emergency faced many hurdles in shooting Des Pardes, his film on illegal immigrants in the UK.
At JNU in the early 90s, Dev Anand in a brilliant lecture highlighted the cause of freedom of expression via cinema. He reminded the student audience how he faced censorship problems during Guide. The Censor Board of Film Certification initially refused to censor Guide citing adultery as an issue. However, Dev and Vijay Anand successfully transcended hurdles and were able to receive an U/A certificate for Guide.
Satyajit Ray avoided a rare opportunity to direct an English film on the Bhopal gas tragedy starring Amitabh Bachchan. Ray confessed to his close associates that the central government would never allow the film to be completed. He was vociferous against the lack of democratic expressions via cinema. Ray said that in Europe, the USA and even Japan, forcefully killing a fundamental right in any form of creative expression was rarely encouraged.
Bengali neo-wave’s eminent director Utpalendu Chakraborty directed Phansi in the late 80s. The film was a radical protest feature film in which a professional hangman ventured against the ruling class. It is a lesser-known fact that Tapan Sinha and Hrishikesh Mukherjee were alarmed viewing the film. They believed its release would create a big disturbance in society. Phansi never saw the light of release.
In a third-world country like India, cinema is still a mere means of larger-than-life entertainment. The educational and social awareness value of cinema takes a back seat here. Protest-oriented masterpieces directed by Jean Luc Goddard, Francisco Rossi and Alan Parker have never been suppressed by governments in France, Italy and USA.
Mrinal Sen often said that a true political film which highlighted protests was very difficult to shoot in India. The government and censors would create a lot of problems and even stop releasing them. He at Cannes pointed out that freedom of expression via cinema received true dignity in Europe. He also stated that Sir Charles Chaplin was even compelled to face problems in the USA by making films like Modern Times and City Lights.
Protests in Indian cinema nowadays receive the wrong media attention and are highlighted sans logic. There is a tendency to make them sensational. The reasons political, social or historical are seldom put forward logically. Because of sheer fear many gifted bold filmmakers shy away from narrating the truth. Freedom of expression in our films is an utopian concept. The saga of Vijay Anand as censor board chairman desperately wanting to redraft and change the 1953 hackneyed Cinematograph Act and introduce a new one with inputs from the USA, UK, France and Greece is well known. He faced stern resistance from the then BJP Government and resigned voluntarily.