Cutting The Edge Off Art: How Theatrewallahs Have To Deal With Censorship
Last week, actor and director Amol Palekar petitioned the Bombay High Court challenging the need for the censorship of plays, bringing into the public sphere an issue that has long irritated the theatre community. Maharashtra and Gujarat are the only states in the country that have censor boards for performance, institutions that have been around since the time the states were part of the Bombay Presidency and that continue to exist even though they serve no valuable purpose.
In this state, the script of every play, tamasha show (the institution was earlier known as the Tamasha Scrutiny Board) and stand-up gig must be vetted by the Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board. Only once it has been issued a censor certificate, can the event take place at a performance venue. Like the relationship between the film fraternity and the Central Board of Film Certification, which has frequently been fraught, there’s a history of theatrewallahs being at loggerheads with censors. Because theatre is a more low-key activity in general, these skirmishes are rarely reported. Almost every theatre person has a story about sparring with them over arbitrary cuts in the script.
“Pre-censorship of any live performance is absurd,” said theatre director Sunil Shanbag. “As a director, I have no control over the actors. All the things they trot out about hurting sentiments…we have enough laws to deal with that. We don’t need a censor law.” Shanbag’s run-ins with the board span several plays: Ramu aur Malik in 1992, Bansuri in 2004, Cotton 56 Polyester 84 in 2006 and Club Desire in 2013. Usually censors demand cuts to parts they think are obscene, likely to hurt religious and political sentiments, and expletives. In February this year, the board made 19 cuts to fundamental portions of Marathi playwright Janardhan Jadhav’s drama Jai Bhim Jai Bharat. The play is an imaginary conversation between Bhimrao Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. The cuts included a demand that the name of the village Khairlanji, where four members of a Dalit family were murdered in 2006, to be changed to Vairanjli; that the word kutra (Marathi for ‘dog’) be changed to the Sanskrit shwan; that the name of Ramabai Nagar, the Ghatkopar slum where ten Dalits were shot by the police in 1997, be changed to Mirabai Nagar; and the term Hindutvavadi be altered to ‘those in power’.
Perhaps the most well-known case of theatre censorship is that of Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play Sakharam Binder, which was first directed by Kamlakar Sarang in 1972. The board had demanded a number of cuts, which were impossible to make. They would’ve altered the titular character, a foul-mouthed individual with rather heterodox ideas about women. The case was taken to the Bombay High Court, which struck down the cuts. Sarang was also harassed by Shiv Sainiks, who would disrupt shows of Sakharam Binder. This stopped only after the play was shown to Bal Thackeray, who, oddly enough, had no objection to it. The case is the focus of Shanbag’s 2009 play S*x, M*rality and C*nsorship. His most recent play Loretta contains a humorous sketch about a censor official.
The sketches in Loretta were written by Varun Grover, lyricist and one of the writers and performers of the stand-up show Aisi Taisi Democracy. According to him, Amol Palekar’s suit is “one of the most important petitions for freedom of expression in recent times.” Said Grover, in an email interview, “It’s a miracle that such a draconian and suffocating censorship has not been challenged legally (before this petition) by the theatre community of Bombay.” Usually when theatrewallahs are served with unacceptable cuts, they either plead their case and try to arrive at a compromise or formally appeal against the demands. In the latter case, the play is reappraised by a committee formed by the board.
It’s well known that at times theatrewallahs submit toned-down versions of scripts to avoid butting heads with censors. For stand-up comedians, on the other hand, it’s trickier to get their acts vetted as they tend to improvise. “A lot of the time, comedians will come on stage and see the energy of the room is down, so they’ll go back to old jokes,” said Sharin Bhatti, who runs performances venues The Hive in Khar and The Cuckoo Club in Bandra. “We do a lot of open mic nights. How do you submit a script for that? For those, I don’t even know who’s going to perform.” There’s another, more insidious form of censorship that theatrewallahs have to reckon with: the morally prickly mob. The only way to deal with a censorious society, arts practitioners believe, is to fight for the right to perform purportedly controversial material and, in doing so, encourage public debate about the issues. “Let us assume (Amol Palekar’s) petition succeeds,” Shanbag said. “Your work is only half done. With state censorship there is a process of appeal. You can get a ruling upturned. With the mob, there is no safety valve.”
Ironically it was a censor certificate that shielded Prithvi Theatre and Ekjute, the theatre group that produced Pencil Se Brush Tak, a drama on the life of M. F. Husain. In 2009, the play ticked off the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a right-wing organisation that had repeatedly litigated against the artist over his depictions of Hindu gods. Despite their protests, the police had to allow the play to be staged. “It was a strange situation,” said Sanjna Kapoor, the director of Prithvi Theatre at the time. “The censor certificate helped me stand my ground with the cops. I said, ‘You tell me how I’m breaking the law’.” Kapoor recalls that since the legislative assembly elections were around the corner at the time, the police had suggested she postpone the shows. The idea was to avoid a law and order situation at a time when political outfits rake up issues to score brownie points with voters. “I said I’m not going to postpone the show,” Kapoor said. “If we start giving in, it’s the beginning of the end.”