Of sense and nonsense

As the Delhi High Court allows the release of “Textures of Loss”, Anuj Kumar talks to director Pankaj Butalia on his exploration of violence in border conflicts and the idea of balance in creative pursuits.

Recently in a landmark judgment Delhi High Court allowed the release of noted documentary filmmaker Pankaj Butalia’s “Textures of Loss”. Focussing on violence in Kashmir, it is part of the trilogy of the director on border conflicts, the other states being Manipur and Assam. “Unanimity of thought and views is not the test to be employed by censuring authorities in such situations…The response cannot be to ban, mutilate or destroy the work of another, with whom one stridently disagrees,” noted the court of Justice Rajiv Shakdher. Earlier, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and the Film Certificate Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) had refused to allow screening of this documentary suggesting some major cuts. And in January newspapers reported that Supreme Court judge Vikramjit Sen has called Butalia’s film ‘one-sided’, raising the issue of balance in creative art.

Butalia says, “Supreme Court made an observation without watching the film. Vikramjit Sen was junior to me in college. He said he was going to recuse himself but my lawyer said that we want to take it to Delhi High Court. He said fine but still asked what the film was all about and what the objections were. The lawyer said one is the usage of word ‘disproportionate violence’. He laughed and said what a stupid thing to stop it for. What was the second one, he asked. The lawyer said the father of the child killed in a stone pelting incident says this kind of India be damned. The judge hadn’t heard the case. He just started ‘oh! I know this kind of one-sided filmmaking. Is there an alternative side?’ The lawyer didn’t know enough to answer it. I could have answered it but was not expected to intervene otherwise I would have said look at the next scene where the mother of another such kid says that the mother of any Hindu, Christian and Sikh will grieve with her. It is an anguish of somebody who has lost his child. You can’t equate that with sedition. There were two reporters in the court that day and it got reported.”

Butalia says he would like to ask what does balance mean. “Does he ask for balance when he sees the other side? If he sees a film on Kashmir Tourism does he say that I won’t allow this unless you show the grieving widow? Both require a censor certificate. Their job is not to edit films. Their job is just to see in ordering this cut whether the CBFC has acted within the law or outside the law. The judge is not there to see whether it is a good film or a bad film. I am entitled to make a bad film.”

Butalia contends that if every piece of work has to be balanced then every work would look alike. “You like a writer because of the writer’s voice. Chetan Bhagat’s only concern is the ambition of the middle class. I can afford to ignore it but I can’t say this book can’t be published unless you include the voice of peasants because whatever happens in the book has consequences for the peasants. If the CBFC says balance is required it means they are saying this and this needs to be put there. This makes them editors and it is not their job. Also, there is an inherent imbalance in society. Those who are rich and powerful their voice is heard much more. Tell me how many times have you heard the name of any of the women featured in my film?” he asks.

Similarly, he adds, all the CBFC members don’t act within the constraints of the Cinematograph Act, 1952 Act. “They go beyond that because the government of India has framed these guidelines. These guidelines to my mind go beyond Article 19 (2) provisions.”

Butalia wants to raise a bigger issue. “In my case at least 24 hours of judicial time is spent on one person. And then they have paid lakhs to their lawyers. I am told by CBFC that they want to go for appeal before the division bench against the High Court order. In that case they would end up spending something to the tune of 40-45 lakh rupees to stop my small film which will now be seen by more and more people. This is the absurdity of censorship. Every time, they do something I get more media coverage. The film was shown in Delhi two years ago and like most documentaries it didn’t create any ripple effect. These people have made it popular. I am not seeking publicity. Unlike Hindi film industry I am not going to get more money if more people watch it. The screenings are held for free. The point is they are helping me and are spending lakhs of money. Imagine if they do it to 10 documentary filmmakers, they will spend 4- 5 crores in stopping baby films.”

Perhaps that’s why many filmmakers don’t apply for certificate. “They don’t bother. But many film festivals want it. It is for them and not for myself.” Also, he wanted to raise the bigger issue of censorship and that the court doesn’t hear it unless you have a personal grievance. “The funny part is even the marriage video requires a certificate. There is nothing in the Act which says five people can see it without certificate.” Ultimately, he maintains, the Censorship Act is meant to control mass medium. “But the biggest mass medium — television is going free. On private channels you can show the same documentary without censor certificate. How many times you have seen scenes of violence during civil war in Sri Lanka on television. But if the same violence is shown in the form of a film it is censored because it might affect relations with the friendly country.”

Butalia says the Act was defined for a time when only big films could be made. “For the times when I had to go to the lab to get the print and the lab won’t give it you unless you have a censorship certificate. Today it has no meaning. I could make it at home. It is defined for moving image. These days most art installations have videos but there is no censorship for them. If you don’t ask for certificate you can keep showing your work, when you go to them they want to squeeze you into conformity. I want to challenge the Act.”

Between the layers

Having worked in Manipur, Kashmir and Assam, Butalia is in a position to delineate the expression of violence in the three volatile zones in the country. “Assam is characterised by complete absence of governance. Smaller tribes are taking up guns because that is the only way they get heard. You keep asking for something, nobody gives it to you. You take up militancy and the state wakes up to ask what do you want and then some settlement is arrived at. So some kind of trade off is happening in lot of places in Assam.”

In Manipur, he observes, people have been protesting for more than 100 years. And women are part of it. “For them death doesn’t matter so much because they are used to state violence and loosing family members on the streets.” Also, he adds Manipur has a 20-year-old tradition of people shooting films. “There are small time journalists, TV channels which would run for six months and then break down. They would go into the middle of the violence and shoot. Of course they are of poor quality but there is a record. And it is not as much in control of Army as Kashmir is.” What struck him in Kashmir was the amount of grief that the families are grappling with. “Unlike Manipur, Kashmir didn’t know about political violence till the 90s. It was a small insular society. There was poverty but there was no violence and suddenly the violence was so extreme that many families don’t have men. So they don’t know how to cope with it. Hence in Kashmir I decided to focus on women and youngsters. There are young boys who have grown up in the atmosphere of violence. And when they go to campus they are searched every day. And when you are subjected to strip search everyday it does something to you. The film features a student in Srinagar who talks about the meaning of freedom for him. “He told me to come to his native place in Kupwara. He was holding the Quran and was finding it difficult to share the incident that changed his life. He said this is the same Quran that I was holding that day when his brother was sexually abused. He was a child at that time and could not do anything. Now he can’t separate the Quran from the event. That is the tragedy.” And perhaps that is why it took Butalia eight years to complete the film. “It is not like a television report. You have to spend time with people. Only then they let you into their world.”

Anuj Kumar

The Hindu, 12 June 2015

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