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‘I am happy this has happened. Now everybody can learn the rules’

Maneka Gandhi walks in with a dictionary in her hand, looking for the Hindi equivalent of phytoplankton. The animal rights activist is writing her column, and needs to make a point about the microscopic plants that fish eat. “Almost 90 per cent of the fish that people eat in India live on human faeces,” she says as an opening line. “If you want to eat just that, why bother eating fish'”

Gandhi is in her MP’s bungalow in central Delhi, surrounded by healthy mongrels. On the walls hang paintings of animals in different hues and styles. Prominent among them is a large oil ' and this, clearly, is the former environment minister’s idea of heaven. A woman sits in a wooded area, with flowers in her hands. Around her are birds and animals ' from tigers and lions to deer and rabbits ' that are looking at her with varying degrees of devotion.

Gandhi is busy, but is willing to speak on a subject that she feels she has been dragged into. Rang De Basanti was finally released last week, after some objections were raised about the use of animals in the film. The censor board chairperson, Sharmila Tagore, had a few things to say about Gandhi ' and now Gandhi has some thoughts on Tagore. Excerpts from an interview with BISHAKHA DE SARKAR:

Q: Is it true that all films have to go through the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) before they can get a censor’s certificate'

A: Most people don’t realise how many thousands of animals are killed by the film industry. A film called Qahar had birds being used as kites with their feet tied. The birds died, and the filmmakers said: ‘Oh, but we used silk threads.’ Camels used in Hindustani died during the shooting. In Roop Ki Rani Choro Ka Raja, about 5,000 pigeons died because they were thrown from the ceiling with their wings cut off.

The censor board had rules on cruelty against animals, but the rules were ignored. In 2001, the ministry of environment brought out a set of rules for the use of animals in films. The rules were very, very clear. No filmmaker who wants to use an animal in his film can get a certificate from the censor board unless the script is first shown to the AWBI. This rule was conveyed to the censor board, but the board ignored it.

Q: What was the problem with Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal'

A: This happened some time in October-November. Even before the film was released, the film’s owners gave an interview saying that it had used 2,000 camels, 2,000 horses and 500 elephants. The AWBI wrote to the censor board saying that it had not cleared the script. The filmmakers said they had got a certificate from the wildlife warden of Ladakh! The matter went up to the information and broadcasting ministry, which took it very seriously. The secretary of the censor board was asked to explain and he said: ‘Sorry, we made a mistake!’

Q: And then came Rang De Basanti.

A: While all this was happening, when the censor board secretary had been specifically told that it could not release anything ' a film, an advertisement or a documentary ' without going by the rules, the promo of Rang De Basanti was released, with horses and all that. But the chairperson of the censor board said she couldn’t be worried about such issues ' the film industry, she said, employs millions of people. But that has nothing to do with the issue. If employment is the issue, let people sell drugs. If you clamp down on the drug industry, thousands of people lose their livelihood.

The idea is to get a script cleared before shooting begins. The chairperson says she doesn’t know the rules. Now the rules have been there for the last four years. She has been told again and again by different organisations. But she just took the position that the film was being targeted because her daughter was in it. This was bizarre, because nobody knew her daughter was in the film! The chairperson went one step further and said, Maneka Gandhi is autocratic. She is in the government, not I. How do I become autocratic'

Anyway, the Rang De Basanti people came here, and some of us on the board saw the bits that involved animals. They were found to be used naturally ' people were riding horses ' and essential to the film. So they were given an NOC.

Q: Do filmmakers ask you to vet a script'

A: Two people came to me and said they had a script which they wanted to show me before they went to the AWBI. I saw the script. And on every page, they killed a tiger. A mother looking for her child kills crocodiles, owls, rabbits, just about anything. A poacher kills a tiger. Everybody shoots everybody. A couple of monkeys get shot. I said the script has possibly everything that’s illegal in it. That was the end of it.

I was given the script in my capacity as Maneka Gandhi, People for Animals. I answered in that capacity. But I read later that the people complained I had not passed the script. Then it turned out to be a Ramgopal Verma film. The industry continues to ignore the rules. A man in a film is so stressed that he knocks down an aquarium and the fish die. Why couldn’t he smash a vase' Look at Paheli, which had pigeons being thrown around.

Q: But Shah Rukh Khan believes he should have the creative freedom to use pigeons.

A: I can swing my hands as far as I want to but I can’t swing it so that it hits your nose. That’s where my freedom ends.

Q: Akbar Khan says you are an attention seeker.

A: (Laughs) Attention seeker' I am just happy this has happened. Now everybody can learn the rules.

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