In Kerala, a play adapted from William Tell gets censored because of the word Governor

Fort Kochi Sub Divisional Magistrate issued a notice censoring the play ‘Governorum Thoppiyum’ on the day it was to be staged as part of Fort Kochi Carnival, leading to its cancellation.
A still from the rehearsal of the play ‘Governarum Thoppiyum’ by Kappiri Kottaka.
A still from the rehearsal of the play ‘Governarum Thoppiyum’ by Kappiri Kottaka.
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It's hardly a week since students aligned with the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) defiantly raised banners in colleges and universities across Kerala, against Governor Arif Mohammed Khan calling out his abuse of power. It was promptly hailed as an act of resistance by the Left, against the Governor who is allegedly a puppet in the hands of Sangh Parivar masters.

But Kappiri Kottaka, a small-time theatre club, was in for a shock when they were forced to abandon their play Governorum Thoppiyum (Governor and the hat), adapted from 1804 German play William Tell, because of a blatant act of last minute censorship by the district administration. The theatre group was set to stage their play at the Pallathu Raman Cultural Centre on December 29 as part of the annual Fort Kochi carnival.

Meera K IAS, Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Fort Kochi, issued a directive to PA Bose, president of Kochi area committee of NATAK, under whose ambit the play was being staged, bluntly asking them to change the play’s title and disallowing the use of the word Governor anywhere in the production. NATAK is an organisation of artists, writers, and activists working in areas associated with theatre.

A notice served to PA Bose on December 29 said the play shouldn't have any reference that is critical of either the state government, the Union government, or persons in constitutional positions by way of resemblance, dressing, or speech mannerisms. It also should not have any religious or political content, it said, adding that the responsibility for the violation of any of these conditions would rest on Bose.

The SDM’s action was based on a complaint by Shivakumar Kammath of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s Mattancherry area committee.

"The play Governarum Thoppiyum was adapted from an early 19th century verse drama William Tell and had nothing to do with Kerala Governor or the recent controversies," said Suresh Koovappadam, who wrote and directed the play.

William Tell, a play in five acts by German dramatist Friedrich Schiller, tells the story of rebellion against a tyrannical Austrian governor. The play was published and produced in 1804 as Wilhelm Tell, a year before Schiller's death.

A part of the play satirises an order by Hermann Gessler, Governor of Schwytz and Uri, who wanted people to bow towards a hat set on a pole in the market place. Schiller wrote: “The cap shall have like honour as himself, And all shall reverence it with bended knee, And head uncovered; thus the king will know, Who are his true and loyal subjects here.”

This was also not the first time they were staging the play. “We had staged this in September before all these controversies arose. I initially adapted this for a college play two decades ago for pre-degree students whom I taught,” said Suresh.

The district administration’s decision was demoralising for the Kappiri Kottaka crew, especially because it happened on the day it was to be staged. “A lot of effort went into getting the costume reflecting the age right.  We were bringing prop and other material to the venue when we learned about it,” said Suresh, who said they had spent around Rs 1.5 lakh on the play.

Bose said he and Suresh met the SDM after being called for a discussion. “We informed the authorities that the play doesn't have anything to do with the Governor and even submitted the script for perusal. But they spotted the word Governor in many pages and wanted it removed. They agreed when we said the word Adhikari (ruler) would be used instead of Governor but later some of the actors felt uncomfortable as they were fearful of consequences and decided not to stage the play,” said Bose, a local politician associated with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). They also staged a protest in Fort Kochi against the censorship.

However Suresh and actor Asid Hussain said Bose’s contention that the actors were scared was not true. “We decided not to stage the play by changing the word Governor because it would be equivalent to subjecting ourselves to censorship. Neither the actors nor the director wanted that to happen," said Asif, an actor and photographer.

Suresh said they intend to stage the play in the future without any changes. “We are thinking of fighting this legally,” he said.

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