India: Artists struggle with censors over LGBT and other themes

23 August 2016

ka bodyscapes poster india
In recent months filmmakers and playwrights have been challenging Indian certification boards after works focusing on LGBT, political and religious themes have come under fire by censors, especially at a time when nationalist ideas and groups are gaining traction in the public and political spheres.

LGBT themes in film
India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has refused to certify ‘Ka Bodyscapes’, the latest film by New York-based director Jayan K Cherian, stating that the “entire content” of the film is “ridiculing, insulting and humiliating Hindu Religion, in particular portraying Hindu Gods in poor light”, reported The Hindu on 27 July 2016.

Censors deemed the movie “vulgar” and obscene” for “highlighting ‘Gay’” themes, and especially took offense to a scene wherein a painting done by one of the male characters features the other male character in a pose like that of the god Vishnu carrying a pile of “books titled ‘I am Gay’ and other Homo-sexual books” instead of a mountain the god is normally depicted carrying. Censors also took offense to the film featuring “many ‘Gay’ posters”.

Cherian also said CBFC’s revising committee took a long time to even review the film, he told news outlet Firstpost on 6 August 2016. According to Cherian, the CBFC scheduled to review the film on 5 July 2016, three months after producers had referred the film, then cancelled the screening the day before and eventually screened it on 15 July 2016 “only after much hue and cry, and after a legal notice was sent”.

Cherian is fighting CBFC’s decision by taking the case to the Kerala High Court, in the southern state of Kerala where the film was made, and is the third filmmaker to do so this year, reported The Economic Times on 7 August 2016.

‘Ka Bodyscapes’ tells the story of three young people: a love story between two men, and a woman who refuses to conform to gender norms.

Plays appearing on censors’ radars
Meanwhile, in the western Maharashtra state, the Maharashtra Censor Board for Theatre (MCBT) has ordered 14 cuts be made to LGBT playwright and activist Bindumadhav Khire’s latest homosexual-themed play ‘Fredy’ for abusive language and sexual content, reported regional newspaper Pune Mirror on 25 July 2016.

Khire had to wait 11 months for the board to make its decision, which also included slapping the play with an “A” certification, meaning only adults could attend the play. Khire told the newspaper that the cuts would mean “the soul of the play will be lost and the audience will not be able to connect with it”.

“I see no difference between Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) chief Pahlaj Nihalani and the members of MCBT. Both the boards require urgent reforms,” he said.

This is Khire’s third play to face board scrutiny. This latest incident of censorship has inspired him to form a movement to call for change for the “entire fraternity of writers who are struggling because of this age-old working culture of the censor board while clearing scripts” and is pushing for “more liberal and consistent censorship across the board”.

Censors as political and religious moral filters
According to Anish Victor, founder of Bangalore theatre collective Rafiki, the current political climate in India of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which gained power in 2014, is one of moral suppression and dominance, reported news outlet Nikkei Asian Review on 13 August 2016.

First they [BJP] come for the movies. Then for the books. Theatre will be the last to be hit, but the clamp-down is coming. They constantly test how far they can push their agenda and how much resistance they encounter. It happens in the courts, on the censorship boards. They push their moralistic values to suppress all public means of expression.

Victor and other artists and intellectuals are growing weary of the increased moral policing and nationalism that seems to be growing in India, and some are becoming more careful about the art they produce.

For example, another playwright in Maharshtra state, Yuki Ellias, is working on a play that involves a Hindu god, but because of the “backlash” from fundamentalists, she has opted to change the character’s name.

“Right now there is a real resurgence of the feeling of being Hindu, powered by the government. Featuring a Hindu god in popular culture remains a big problem,” Ellias told Nikkei Asian Review.

Artists in the state not only have to face censor boards, such as the MCBT and CBFC, but also have to contend with far-right groups like Shiv Sena and religious groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, both of which initiate protests against any artistic work it finds offensive or immoral, whether for sexual, political or religious content.

According to Freemuse monitoring, in 2014 India had six cases of censorship of the arts. In 2015 that number nearly doubled to 10 cases. And in 2016, the country already has at least 15 cases of censorship documented, all of which are either for films or plays.

Photo: Section of ‘Ka Bodyscapes’ poster featuring part of the Vishnu painting in the film


» Nikkei Asian Review – 13 August 2016:
Indian theatre activists see rise in political risks

» The Economic Times – 7 August 2016:
Why CBFC refused to certify Malayalam film ‘Ka Bodyscapes’

» Firstpost – 6 August 2016:
For makers of queer cinema, getting censor clearance is still an uphill struggle

» The Hindu – 27 July 2016:
‘Ka Bodyscapes’ refused certification

» Pune Mirror – 25 July 2016:
City LGBT activist tells censor board to launch reforms 

» Pune Mirror – 24 June 2016:
Theatre censure with gay abandon

» The Times of India – 31 May 2016:
Pune’s gay rights group to host queer play readings

More from Freemuse

» 13 July 2016: India: Film censorship continues unabated

» 16 June 2016: India: Film survives censor board controversy after court ruling

» 30 May 2016: India: Censors under fire

» 4 March 2016: India: Non-state groups ban Bollywood film featuring homosexual relationship

» 22 February 2016: Art Under Threat: Attacks on artistic freedom in 2015

» 26 November 2015: India: Pakistani actors banned in Maharashtra state

» 2 November 2015: India: Pakistani singer’s concerts cancelled after protests

» 7 April 2015: India: ‘Un-Freedom’ movie banned by censorship board 

» 9 February 2015: Violations of musical freedom of expression in 2014

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