Theatre & Censorship: Challenges Playwrights Face in Maharashtra

This story first appeared in The Quint on 28 September 2016.

The biggest concern of any playwright is to find a producer who would embrace his play. But when renowned writer Premanand Gajvi finished writing his play in May 2015, little did he know that dealing with the censor board would consume most of his energy.

He submitted the script on 5 May last year, and received a clearance only in September this year – 15 months after submission, which means nine months more than what the board can legally take.

On 20 September, veteran actor and filmmaker Amol Palekar filed a petition in the Bombay High Court, challenging the censorship of theatre performances, conducted by the Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board under various provisions of the Bombay Police Act, 1951. A procedure theatre artists have to undergo only in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

This pre-censorship leads to curtailment of artistic freedom. Because of this, many historic plays have not been performed in their original form… The objections in relation to the script and the performance are left completely to the subjective satisfaction of the members.

Excerpt from the petition  

The scrutiny of performances and scripts, as per the rules, is compulsory “for regulation in the interest of public order, decency or morality”. But the state government on Tuesday informed the Bombay High Court that the censorship of plays ended in March this year.

The affidavit seems to have stumped all and sundry because writers and playwrights say the censorship still continues, and hardly anyone is aware of the practice being discontinued.

The next hearing regarding Palekar’s petition is on 4 October. Along with asserting the right to express without any impediments, Palekar’s petition also aims to do away with what Gajvi had to go through for 15 months.

Initially, I did not follow up frequently with the censor board because I was busy meeting producers. But when I realised the board is not moving along, I had to divert my attention.

Premanand Gajvi.

Gajvi’s play is centered around a young disgruntled protagonist who is frustrated with the social and economic inequality in the country. Gajvi said references to the controversial Pakistan-China border agreement of the 1960s, which is not recognised by India, often comes up in it.

“They told me my play was unconstitutional,” said Gajvi. “But they did not specify what in the play goes against the Constitution.”

One of the board members even suggested he get his play cleared through the courts, to which Gajvi declined, saying he did not have the money and time to waste on court procedures. “I was a bit bewildered,” he said. “If you know why your play is being derailed, you can at least do something about it.”

After Gajvi’s persistence, the board members invited him to a meeting, which was being held in Wai, 240 kilometers from Mumbai. But Gajvi asked them to invite him for the one held in Mumbai.

A month later, Gajvi had the opportunity to justify his script and explain how the message was in the interest of society. Simultaneously, he also approached newspapers over the delay in acquiring the certificate. Eventually, in a live debate on a TV channel, Arun Nalawade, the chairman of the board, declared he had decided to clear the play without any cuts.

Maharashtra One of Two States that Censors Plays

Palekar said whenever an artist is at loggerheads with the board, the fight is limited to the specific work in question. “We need to get to the fundamentals of the problem,” he said.

“Is it not ironical that on the one hand, we say Maharashtra is the most vibrant state when it comes to theatre, and on the other, it is the only state – besides Gujarat – which pre-censors plays?”

The reason why Maharashtra conducts censorship of plays dates back to 1948, and has its roots in the popular folk art of tamasha. Women performed tamasha but their exploitation under the garb of art led to a committee aimed to take corrective measures.

The committee suggested a scrutiny board that would assess the script of tamashas. In 1951, the Board for Prior Scrutiny of Tamasha came into being. In the 1970s, with a few amendments, it was renamed the Maharashtra Rangbhoomi Parinirikshan Mandal (Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board).This image is used for representational purposes. (Photo Courtesy: Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts.

Nalawade, strongly disagreeing with Palekar’s petition, said the censor board is a necessity as it serves as a watchdog and helps avoid turbulence in society.

There is freedom guaranteed by the Constitution, but with reasonable restrictions… I have done theatre for a number of years and I understand the audience. Art can flare up emotions. Maharashtra takes great pride in its culture and we need to preserve it. The sheer quantum of theatre and literature in Maharashtra sets the state apart from the others.

However, under the pretense of preserving our culture, many plays have suffered in the past. Legendary playwright Vijay Tendulkar’s Gidhade (Vultures) was stalled in 1970 due to its “realistic portrayal”. After the producers contested the delay, the play was released with a few cosmetic cuts.

In 1974, Vasanakand (The Inferno of Lust) directed by Palekar and written by Mahesh Elkunchwar, was banned because the board thought that “the incestuous relationship between a brother and sister shown in the play is immoral, hence likely to offend audiences and may result in vandalism, triggering a law and order situation”, Palekar wrote in a column.

Bighadle Swargache Daar (Defective Door of the Heaven), a play released in 1987 and then revived in 2001, was directed by Vijay Kenkre, but had to be discontinued despite a tremendous response. It was a satirical play where a political leader goes to heaven because of mistaken identity.

But radical Hindu group Sanatan Sanstha objected to its content, which was followed by a reassessment of the script, and the censor board suggested 84 cuts. The list of such examples is like Hanuman’s tail: never-ending.

Senior playwright and former censor board member Sanjay Pawar said board appointments are political ones and they often get into trouble by being “more loyal than the king”.

Ideological leanings of members often influence their decisions… In the time of globalisation, the idea of a censor board seems outdated. The things we tend to censor are already out there on the Internet. The board should only categorise content. Let the audience decide what they want.

Sanjay Pawar, Senior Playwright

Stringent Laws Stifle the Freedom of Theatre Groups

Theatre groups in India perform without any impediments across the country but have to get their work certified in order to perform in Maharashtra. Irawati Karnik, who writes frequently for Bengaluru-based theatre group Indian Ensemble, said no theatre in Maharashtra is allowed to host a show without a censor certificate.

“In some cases, it is simply a formality,” Karnik, who has written critically acclaimed plays like Gasha and Sex, Morality and Censorship, said. “But the fact that you have to go through it every time is ridiculous, considering all other states are doing just fine without it.”

Pawar, however, while endorsing Palekar’s sentiment behind the petition, shed light on an interesting flip side to abolishing the censor board. He said the challenges artists face from self-proclaimed censors are much more acute than the official censor board.

“There is no shortage of organisations getting offended at the drop of a hat,” he said. “With the state-sanctioned censor board in place, artists can cite its approval and counter the group claiming to vandalise theatres because of hurt sentiments. If the official censor board is gone, the fight against the unofficial censors would intensify.”

Naseeruddin Shah: Film industry created Rajesh Khanna, used him and cast him away

This report first appeared on DNA Online on 10 August 2016.

A controversy that seemed to have found its closure may resurface again with Naseeruddin Shah elaborating on the comments he had made about Rajesh Khanna. Shah contextualised his comments and said that he had been asked about mediocrity in Hindi cinema in general, to answer which he had used the 1950s, 60s and 70s as reference.

In a conversation with Neville Tuli that lasted almost two hours on Tuesday evening at the Liberty cinema in Mumbai, Shah was searingly honest, candid and witty, not just about others but about himself as well. The packed hall welcomed him with a rousing applause and a standing ovation.

On the Rajesh Khanna controversy

Elaborating on his comments on Rajesh Khanna’s mediocrity, Shah said that the coming of colour was the “main thing that caused it”. “The trilogy of Raj Kumar, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand were on the wane. The film industry needed a new icon. Rajesh Khanna filled that role,” he said. “The fact is the industry created him, used him, and cast him away when he was no longer a money minting machine.”

Shah added that none of those who got upset when he called Khanna mediocre had contradicted him. The industry had criticised Shah for “not respecting the dead.” But he countered, “What respect did the film industry have for Rajesh Khanna when he was alive? He was forgotten.”

Various celebrities had challenged Shah’s claim by citing Khanna’s stardom and popularity. However, Shah said that an actor and a star are “two different things”. “There are people saying he had thousands of people waiting outside his bungalow. Does that make him a great actor? Are you saying everyone who has thousands of people outside their bungalow is a great actor?” he asked.

‘Stardom was an important dream’

Shah said he never dreamt of playing roles like Mirza Ghalib or Einstein but wanted to do all the things a commercial hero did. “I wanted to sing songs, swing from a chandelier. I didn’t know how well I would do that and, as it transpired, I did them badly,” he said. Shah said that the fact that he was an ordinary, unnoticed student triggered the burning desire to be seen, applauded and liked. “Stardom was an important dream. I cannot deny that.”

“After I was finished with NSD in Delhi, I did not know what to do next,” he said. Shah described how he decided to study at FTII after watching the film Piya ka Ghar (1972). The film had Jaya Bachchan playing the lead role, among others. Shah realised that the only way he could earn a living was by acting in movies. “One day, I saw a film called Piya ka Ghar at Regal cinema and I walked in. I don’t know why. The actors in it weren’t my favourites. But it was providential. While watching it I said to myself, there are at least six actors in this film who are from the film institute. The fact that none of them know how to act is a different thing.”

Shah felt he was fortunate enough to maintain a certain balance and thanked Sanjeev Kumar for it. “He was offered the role in Sparsh (1980). He turned it down. He was offered Mirza Ghalib (1988). He turned it down. May god bless him.”

While admitting it felt great to do a song like ‘Oye, oye’, Shah said he “never got the hang of commercial cinema”. He further said he still does not understand why Tridev (1989) was a big hit. “I got a leading role in Rajshri film, Sunayana (1979). It was a terrible movie and I did a bad job. I tried to be authentic. I tried to apply the yardstick I applied in films like Manthan (1976) but it didn’t work at all,” he said.

The veteran actor was all praise for director Shyam Benegal, who he described as one of his “surrogate fathers”, saying he wished he could go back and relive the experience of working on his first big breakthrough, Nishant (1975). “I could not believe when Shyam called me. It was just the kind of thing I had dreamt would happen,” he said. Shah was in awe of his co-stars like Amrish Puri, Girish Karnad, Mohan Agashe and Shabana Azmi. Elaborating on Benegal’s contribution, the actor said that the director’s Ankur (1974) was the film that gave him hope because he thought he could get work in a film like that. “I knew I couldn’t be the magnificent seven. But I knew I could be actors or characters who could be real.”

During the course of the conversation, Shah spoke of his love affairs and had advice for young actors on the long, hard and lonely process of acting. He said Spencer Tracy made him believe that an actor could look like a human being.

‘Hindi cinema has numbed the senses of the audience’

Shah made no attempt to sound diplomatic and continued to be forthright with his opinions. He named Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) as the finest commercial film in Hindi cinema because, inspite of its absurdities, it was “made with conviction”. He described working with Khwaab (1980), directed by Shakti Samanta, as his biggest suffering while calling Jaane Bhi Do Yaro (1983) a film he treasures.

The actor felt that Hindi movies had systematically numbed the senses of the audience to the extent that the they had started enjoying it. “If the audience isn’t supplied anything else, they will take whatever is available,” he said, adding he did not take Hindi films seriously because he was exposed to western films way before watching them. “Frankly, the so-called good Hindi films weren’t very much better than the Dara Singh films. I preferred Shammi Kapoor movies and Dara Singh movies because one didn’t have to take them seriously at all.”

After the conclusion of the interview, the floor was thrown open to the audience and Shah was at his wittiest while answering questions. When asked about films like Welcome Back and Jackpot, he said that satisfaction is not just creative or artistic but also financial. “I would never go to see a film like Welcome Back,” he said, “but I would act in it.”

A man asked Shah about how comfortable he was being directed by a first timer in his recently released short film. Shah said, “Working with first-time directors has never been a problem, though I have often complained about veterans.”

The loudest laughter came when Shah was asked how he tackled his family after a film like Dirty Picture (2011), to which he replied, “Tackling my family after Mohra (1994) was more difficult.”

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IFFI 2015: Jafar Panahi’s ‘Taxi’ and the genius of this banned filmmaker

This piece first appeared on DNA Online on 4 December 2015.

The traffic signal is red. We see an intersection through the windshield of a car. As the green light blinks, the camera moves forward. A passerby asks for a lift, the car stops and the camera flips around. It is a taxi. Two passengers argue about capital punishment, one of them endorsing the hanging of petty thieves. He also chastises the taxi driver for not driving like a pro. The two shortly get off and the wobbly camera zooms out. The driver is Jafar Panahi.

Panahi, an internationally celebrated film director from Iran, has come up with this latest masterpiece, Taxi, in which he negotiates through the streets of Teheran disguised as a cabbie, encounters varied passengers and makes a powerful statement on the state of Iran. The film took the recently concluded International Film Festival in Goa by storm. So much so, that the organisers scheduled a repeat show of Taxi on public demand.


The Iranian government imposed a 20-year ban on Panahi in 2010, disallowing him from making films. Being a socially committed filmmaker has cost him dearly as the government, along with banning him from filmmaking until 2030, released him into house arrest in 2011 (though he is now allowed some movement) and barred him from travelling abroad or giving interviews for “making propaganda against the system”. Panahi irked Iran’s Islamic Republic, first in 2000, when he made a film called The Circle, which depicted the treatment of women in Iran. The iconic director was at it again in 2003 with Crimson Gold where he highlighted the crisis of masculinity in Iran’s underclass. Offside in 2006 was inspired by a real life incidence of Panahi’s daughter, who was refused entry into a football stadium because of her gender. Each of these films was banned in Iran.

Panahi’s popularity at the international film festivals and the accolades that poured in from all corners of the globe were enough for the Iranian government to convict him for defaming the country internationally.

The clandestinely produced Taxi exemplifies the fact that no censorship can silence a genius like Panahi. This is his third film during the five years of being under surveillance. This Is Not a Film in 2012 and Closed Curtains in 2014 were the other two. This Is Not a Film was famously smuggled out of Iran through a USB stick concealed in a birthday cake. Closed Curtains was shot at his beach house.

Taxi opens with a discussion on capital punishment between a liberal female teacher and a man with condescending macho swagger and goes on to speak about superstition, patriarchy and, most importantly, censorship. A camera mounted on the dashboard of the taxi passed off as a security device shoots the range of characters and a roadshow of Iranian society unfolds.

As Panahi, wearing a hat and a gentle smile drives on, Omid, a round-headed big-eyed man, boards his taxi and promptly recognises the director because he is in the business of distributing pirated DVDs of banned films and western TV serials in Iran. “Mr. Panahi, I recognise you,” he says with excitement. When Panahi questions him about his illicit business, Omid responds, “I am doing a cultural activity, sir, just like you. Without me, no Woody Allen in Iran.” After arriving at his destination, Omid asks how much fare he owes him, to which Panahi says, “It is all right. Keep it for your cultural activity.”

In the 82-minute long sarcastic portrayal of Iranian society, there are many references to Panahi’s own work from his glittering past. Two superstitious old women barge into the taxi with a bowl of goldfish, anxious about reaching their destination in time is a reference to Panahi’s first film, The White Balloon. A female human rights lawyer, barred from practicing law, speaks about visiting a girl jailed for sneaking into a stadium, echoing Offside. Passengers who know Panahi also invoke the circumstances under which he has been prohibited from making films.

But the most compelling narrative comes from Panahi’s nine-year-old niece, Hana. This year, she tearfully received the prestigious Golden Bear Award in Berlin on Panahi’s behalf, as he was not allowed to travel. In Taxi, she is a budding filmmaker who wants to make a “distributable” film. Panahi picks her up from school and asks her innocently about the criteria for the film to qualify as distributable. She precisely lists the government diktats that landed Panahi in trouble— no sordid realism, no statement on politics or economy. Moreover, men must not wear ties unless they are villains and the characters ought to be named after sacred Islamic saints.

It seems many of the passengers play themselves in the film though Panahi omits end credits, mentioning the information could fall to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The whole film is shot in a car, leaving no scope to show off cinematographic skills or augmenting the experience with visually compelling spectacles. The film is verbose but intriguing and reflective of the mindset prevailing in many parts of the world. Panahi encapsulates his own anguish of the “Big Brother is Watching You” treatment with his artistic brilliance. The message of the film is truer than it has ever been and relevant not just in Iran.

In India, the reason behind banning the documentary India’ Daughter was precisely the reason for which Panahi is forbidden from making films in Iran— it defames the country globally. After Dadri, many politicians said the instance maligned India’s image internationally. The writers returning their awards were pilloried because their move supposedly damaged India’s image abroad. In Taxi, a bewildered Hana asks Panahi why the things transpiring in Iran are okay but their portrayal is objected to.

Post World War II, Germany initiated a probe against their own prominent members of the political, military and economic leadership of Nazi Germany for some of the despicable war crimes at various concentration camps. Whether it defamed Germany for unearthing their own bloody history or it raised the country’s stature for confronting their past instead of being in denial is for everyone to judge. (At this year’s International Film Festival in Goa, a film called Labyrinth of Lies depicted the investigations that led to the trials of their own by their own.)

We Indians must thank our stars for not being in Iran, for the censorship that we express our angst about is piddling when juxtaposed with what Panahi and his ilk have had to face. Other iconic directors like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Asghar Farhadi fled Iran, moved to Paris and have no plans to return anytime soon. However, as we celebrate the freedom of dissent we still have at our disposal, it might be prudent to reflect a bit on the current narrative of nationalism being promulgated. The censorship in Iran also began with a similar premise.

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