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.”

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