In what is being seen as yet another instance of governmental censorship of creative expression in film, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has refused to exempt the Malayalam film Sexy Durga. Without the exemption, the independent film by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan cannot be screened at the upcoming Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star.
A film needs an exemption from the I&B Ministry in order to be screened at film festivals without certification from the Central Board of Film Certification.
According to a Facebook post by Thiruvananthapuram-based director Sasidharan on Tuesday, the Ministry has received “several grievances against its title”.
“Ministry is of the view that, it may affect the law and order as it hurts the religious sentiments, 'Durga' being a principal Hindu Goddess. The applicant, however, may approach the Central Board of Film Certification for certification of this film in normal course instead of seeking exemption,” the response added.
The move has understandably upset the filmmaker. Noting in a Facebook post on Monday that this was the second time this exemption was being denied to Sexy Durga, Sasidharan wrote, “Festivals had been the only option for such films made without fear of censoring in India. Now they are bringing festivals also under the radar of censorship and majoritarian scrutiny. This should be strongly condemned. It is clearly an invasion of limited spaced available to the independent films.”
“We have to fight and protect these spaces for the sake of our democracy and for the sake of the freedom of expression ensured by the Constitution. I will be approaching the Hon'ble High Court for a remedy,” he added.
Sasidharan has also clarified in several interviews that ‘Durga’ is simply the name of the character of a homeless girl who is the protagonist of his film, and has nothing to do with religion.
He is understandably upset and angry and goes to the extent of calling India "a land that's becoming like Iran". But he is not losing hope, and has applied for a certificate from the censor board. The screening for the board was held on Tuesday.
"I am waiting for the censor board's opinion. I am going to fight for it, because it's a question of freedom of expression, the freedom of making art... I won't sit quietly. I will go to the court and make an appeal and do whatever I can do to fight this," Sasidharan told IANS over phone.
"It is a very difficult situation that we are compelled to do certain films under the norms and under the radar of the majoritarian scrutiny... This country is becoming a country like Iran, and we are boasting that we have democracy and freedom of speech, and we protect a lot of different kind of opinions," he said.
"But what we do is cut freedom. It is time to stand up against these things," he added.
Alleging that exemption is granted by the Ministry based only on the title and synopsis of the films, Sasidharan told Anvisha Manral for Firstpost, “They haven't even seen the film and have just denied exemption based on the name.”
"Durga is the protagonist of the film. I knew that these people will come out and say, 'Oh, Durga is our goddess'. But if that's the case, go and worship all women named Durga on the streets. That's not happening," he argued.
"What I mean is, Durga is a common name in India. It's not only the goddess. There are many humans (named Durga) you can see, and they may not even be treated like human beings; when they need help, people don't care. But when a name (film title) comes like this, then suddenly people make a hue and cry and they say, 'Our religious sentiments are being hurt'," the filmmaker said.
"It's ridiculous and hypocritical. I wanted to bring this hypocrisy forward," he added.
Many people have come out in support of Sasidharan on social media, with a Change.org petition seeking signatures for the screening of Sexy Durga to be allowed at MAMI. It has over 2,400 supporters so far.
"Only the independent filmmakers are daring to do something different as they don't care about the financial success... But in the mainstream cinema, they all care about financial success, so they don't care about making films on those subjects that are not likable to the masses," Sasidharan rued.
"Indie filmmakers are daring to make films which talk about the truth, and they (government) are trying to kill that movement. It is a very difficult time," he added.
Sexy Durga is also the first Indian film to have won the Hivor Tiger Award. The jury had lauded the film for “its daring and resourceful approach in creating a mood of constant tension. The particular use of camera and acting give a sense of immediacy and momentum, while providing an insight into multi-layered power dynamics of gender, class and authority,” reported TOI.
It has also been nominated at the Split International Festival of New Film and Edinburgh International Film Festival, and won in the Feature Competition category at the Golden Apricot Yerevan International Film Festival.
(With inputs from Radhika Bhirani, IANS)