Lights, camera, censorship

Last Updated: Fri, Jul 20, 2012 19:00 hrs

Five landmark films — banned, censored or frowned upon — come to Osian’s-Cinefan. Veenu Sandhu tries to find out what’s it about these movies that has ruffled so many feathers

Last year, ten days before the opening of the Cannes Film Festival, an announcement created a flutter among film makers and cinephiles across the world. To be screened at the festival was Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s recently shot but hitherto unseen Iranian documentary, This is Not a Film. The film had risked a long, dangerous journey from Iran to make it to Cannes, travelling in a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake. True to its name, this was not a film but an incarcerated film maker’s assertion of his right to make movies.

Prosecuted by the Iranian government for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” Panahi, the director behind some highly intuitive and beautiful films like The White Balloon and The Mirror, was in December 2010 sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films for 20 years. While he remains in confinement, his last film, This is Not a Film, made under house arrest in 2011, has been travelling the globe. From Cannes, it went to the New York Film Festival, the Warsaw International Film Festival and others. Now, it comes to India to be screened at the 12th edition of Osian’s-Cinefan Film Festival.

The 10-day festival, which starts from July 27, brings five such landmark films which were either banned in their home country, or still remain censored in some countries or which saw restrictions on some scenes. The five-film list might be small but it is enough to show that curbs, censorship and moral policing are not issues restricted to any one region. So, we have the Iranian This is Not a Film, Shuji Terayama’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup from Japan, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) from Italy, Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-Moi (2000) from France and J L Freer-Hunt’s Karma (1933) from India.

Let’s begin with the pre-Independence Karma. Starring the husband-wife team of Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai, it came at a time when Indian cinema was witnessing a transition from the silent era to the talkies. Released in England and India in both English and Hindustani (the Hindi version was called Naagan ki Raagini), this is often described as the “first Indian talkie with English dialogue which set all London talking.” It’s a simple story of a forward-thinking princess of Sitapur (played by Devika Rani in sleeveless blouses) falling in love with the prince of neighbouring Jayanagar (Himanshu Rai). Only the prince’s father disapproves of the match. Exquisitely shot, the film captures the essence of colonial India, complete with tiger hunts, royalty and peasantry, snake charmers and holy men. So, what was it about Karma that got everybody talking? For Europe, it was the film’s portrayal of the enigmatic India and what was described as “a sort of American romance against an Indian background.” For India, it was the long, passionate kiss on the lips which Devika Rani gives her unconscious lover who’s been bitten by a snake. In other scenes too, one of which also has an unsuspecting squirrel, we see the two exchanging kisses, the comfort level between them evident. Officially, the kisses went past film censorship. But the audience failed the film — they weren’t bold enough for it and for the first time national newspapers debated the moral content of cinema on their front pages.

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There has never been a film like Emperor Tomato Ketchup, and it’s impossible to risk a prediction if there ever will be. Both anarchy and poetry, it’s the story of a colony where pre-pubescent children have overthrown the adults and a young lad is now the emperor. The grown-ups are the hunted and the abused. Violent, with overexposed imagery, uncomfortably graphic sexual content and the strong undercurrent of the Oedipus complex, this film, like any piece of art, is open to interpretation. And rejection too. What is the filmmaker, Shuji Terayama, trying to convey here? The absence of a narrative makes that question even trickier to answer. Are the children dwarf adults, a symbol that most people are child-like and given a chance, in the absence of rules, will go all out to satisfy their needs and be happy, whatever it takes? Or is it about failed utopian dreams? Or is the film, as its synopsis says, “about the need to acknowledge the serious nature of infantile sexual drives rather than projecting collective fantasies of innocence on to children”?

Likewise for Pasolini’s Salò. With its depiction of horrifying acts of degradation — nine teenage boys and nine girls subjected to 120 days of unspeakable physical, mental and sexual torture by four fascist libertines — it remains a relevant statement on the current times even over three decades after it was made. Again, graphic, explicit and chilling, the film has often been rated as unwatchable and has even had people walking out in utter disgust. Yet, the predatory and depraved acts which Pasolini brings to screen are carried out all around us — on street children, in children’s homes, even in hostels — though we choose to look the other way.

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Coming to Baise-Moi, the first movie to be banned in France in 28 years, which has broken the barrier between mainstream cinema and pornographic film. It’s a violent, explicit and daring autobiographical exposé. One of its directors happens to be a former prostitute and the other a former porn actress. Shot on digital video with no artificial lighting, this one too is not an easy watch. Meaningless murders and cold sexual encounters make you wonder what’s happening here. But in the end it all comes together, in all its rawness.

In all of these films, the question that arises is not: where do you draw the line? But this: do you draw the line at all?

Looking back, the most important entry at Osian’s-Cinefan this year remains This is Not a Film. Not for the quality of the film — it’s shot with a digital camera and an iPhone in Panahi’s apartment — or the strong storyline or the narrative, but for the message it carries against oppression and censorship. We see Penahi documenting his life in his apartment where he is confined. Barred from making films, he decides to read out some scenes he’s visualised for the movie he cannot now make — an adaptation of Chekhov’s Diary of a Young Girl. As he enacts the script (the only time he’s played an actor as an adult), drawing lines with strips of yellow paper on the rug to explain the setting, he pauses, tries to get a grip on his emotion and asks, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?”

Osian’s-Cinefan starts on July 27 and runs till August 5 at Siri Fort Auditorium and the Kila Complex, New Delhi

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