Monday, 30th October 2017

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Cut, or it's Curtains

Sonia Sarkar reports the struggle theatre artistes are having to wage to keep the stage clear of scissor-happy censors

By Sonia Sarkar
  • Published 25.09.16

If you love your theatre, this may come as a surprise to you. Theatre goers, says the censor board of Maharashtra, only want to see "good things" being staged.

"We are not going to issue certificates to plays which show problems faced by the people," says Arun Nalawade, chairman of the Maharashtra Rangbhoomi Parinirikshan Mandal. "People want to watch only good things. Playwrights must understand that," adds the head of the board that is currently vetting a dozen scripts on the recent incidents of assaults on Dalits by cow vigilantes.

Not surprisingly, cinema and theatre veteran Amol Palekar has moved court. Earlier this week, Palekar filed a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the pre-censorship of scripts, calling it a violation of the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Playwright Premanand Gajvee knows that well. Earlier this year, the board refused to pass his play Chhavani, calling it "unconstitutional". The play questioned social inequality in the country against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement.

"They sat on my script for a year-and-a-half but never explained to me what was so 'unconstitutional' in the script," says Gajvee, who finally got permission this month to stage the play.

There are examples galore in Maharashtra. The censor board demanded 10 cuts in Janardhan Jadhav's Marathi play Jai Bhim, Jai Bharat, which depicted an imagined conversation among B.R. Ambedkar, M.K. Gandhi and a Dalit activist. Playwrights complain that the board asks for arbitrary cuts, sometimes issues an "A" certificate for plays with no adult content or just junks a script without citing reasons.

Playwright Premanand Gajvee

"We think a hundred times before writing a script because we know we will be harassed by the censor board if we don't listen to their dos and don'ts. If we continue to do this for long, our artistic genius will die. It's about time we fight for our rights legally," says Gajvee. Palekar, he adds, had consulted him before moving court.

But theatre censorship is not restricted to Maharashtra. Gujarat, like Maharashtra, has a censor board for plays. Soon after the post-Godhra riots of 2002, theatre man Roysten Abel sought to stage The Spirit of Anne Frank, a story set in a train carrying passengers to Baroda. But the board asked for 90 cuts before it could be staged in Ahmedabad. The director defied the order and staged the play without the cuts.

Similar complaints are voiced by playwrights and directors in other states. In places such as Delhi, scripts are vetted by the police - and this system poses its own problems. "In 2005, when we were doing a play called Mr Jinnah (on Muhammad Ali Jinnah), breaking the myths about him, we were told by the police that we could not stage it because it glorified Jinnah," director Arvind Gaur of Asmita Theatre says.

Directors hold that the censors get worried if a play goes against what is largely seen as a social norm. If in the 70s, Vijay Tendulkar's Sakharam Binder was banned because it revolved around a man who brought home castaway wives of other men, in 2016, Marathi playwright and director Bindumadhav Khire ran into trouble because his plays Fredy and Purushottam dealt with gender issues.

"The board objected to three lines and two cuss words which I used in Purushottam, about a same-sex couple. For Fredy, a black comedy about masculinity in Bollywood, the board suggested 14 cuts," Khire points out.

Dancer-director Mallika Sarabhai believes that often there is no logic to the censors' demands. She was asked to delete the word "shit" in a play on manual scavengers, titled Unsuni.

UNEASY SILENCE: Scenes from Unsuni and Mr Jinnah (above)

"How can you tell the story of a manual scavenger without using this word," Sarabhai asks.

Of course, censorship is not new to theatre. Way back in 1876, Dinabandhu Mitra's play Neel Darpan, about the revolt of indigo farmers in Bengal, was described by the British as "scurrilous", leading to the enactment of a law.

The conflict between administrations and dramatists carried on over the years. Theatre icon Utpal Dutt was arrested by the Congress government in Bengal because it feared that his 1965 play Kallol - on the 1946 naval uprising - would spark anti-Congress protests. Dutt "cleverly used the historical context to mask his political intent," writes Arnab Banerji of the University of Georgia in a paper titled Rehearsals for a revolution: The Political Theater of Utpal Dutt.

Bengal's theatre also witnessed censorship during the Left Front regime. Hooligans backed by the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) often disrupted shows of plays that took on the government. Liberal voices have been gagged in the Trinamul Congress's Bengal, too.

"The Trinamul went a step ahead and created its own theatre group, Natya Sajan (now disbanded), which controlled the theatre scene. No invitations were sent to theatre artistes who didn't subscribe to the party's ideology to perform in festivals. These artistes would also never get an auditorium for their plays," theatre group Swapnasandhani's director Koushik Sen says.

Political plays have often borne the brunt of an administration's ire. Vijay Tendulkar's Ghasiram Kotwal was banned in 1972 because the play looked at the rise of the Shiv Sena. In 2009, when Gajvee produced Gandhi-Ambedkar, where he sought to present the differences between the two leaders on caste, the censor board suggested 60 cuts.

Artistes often have to deal with religious and cultural groups, too. In 2003, some Hindutva groups objected to Habib Tanvir's Jamadarin urf Ponga Pandit which dealt with issues such as the caste system and superstition.

But, clearly, what makes theatre relevant is that directors and writers refuse to buckle under pressure. "I will soon present a play called Gandhi @ The saffron brigade will create problems but nothing can stop me," says Gaur.

The show, as they say, must go on.