From the virile Mughals to the celibate Mahatma, India was lucky never to have been led by prudes. The old emperors were unabashed about their harems. And Gandhi was equally unembarrassed in public about celibacy being part of his experiments with truth. The various kinds of abstinence that he practised had nothing to do with being squeamish. So, it is a sad paradox that India’s current image in the world is being determined by a particularly unsavoury brand of prudish insecurity. The matter becomes more unattractive when this attitude emanates from the political establishment and translates into a course of action that amounts to nothing other than censorship. Indian Summer has been shelved for the time being, not only because of a lack of funds, but also, and primarily, because the Indian ministry of information and broadcasting wants the film’s portrayal of the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru to be “toned down”. The film was to be based on a book that depicts their friendship as an “intense and clandestine love affair”. But the ministry shuddered at the thought of Nehru in love, and of seeing him kissing, dancing closely, or in bed, with a woman.
Freud had written about how children have to be protected from the trauma of witnessing the ‘primal scene’ of their parents’ lovemaking. But it is annoying for adult Indians to be protected by their government from witnessing the creators of the nation not just in bed, but also in any sort of amorous dalliance. Of course, it is impossible to know, and also quite irrelevant, if Nehru and the vicereine had a sexual relationship. But this was going to be a feature film, and it is perfectly all right for the gaps in recorded history to be filled by the imagination. The British queens, both Elizabeths and Victoria, have all had their far-from-innocuous counterparts in cinema and fiction, and nobody, including the current queen, seemed to mind. In India, one does not have to go as far as wanting to fictionalize hallowed lives to have the idea instantly gunned down, even trying to write a truthful biography can meet with irritating and high-minded obstructions.
What is also in place is a bureaucracy that is unusually alert and efficient about creating these obstructions. The I&B ministry would be left with very little to do if its policing responsibilities were taken away. All foreign films shot in India have to be okayed by a committee, which ensures that India and its people are not let down by any of the films. Most sensible Indians would feel that the very existence of such an officious committee, which presumes to make moral, political and aesthetic judgments on their behalf, lets them down badly enough. To be represented publicly by such a body is far more embarrassing than watching India’s first prime minister fall in love with an Englishwoman who was somebody else’s wife.