Rejected by conventionally organised film festivals on account of exhibiting ‘uncomfortable’ content, independent documentary filmmakers take on the task of showcasing their work by creating their own public viewing spaces with their own rules.
The city of Mumbai has seen several milestones in the evolution of cinema in India. And since 2004, it has witnessed yet another. The roots of Vikalp, Films for Freedom, can be traced to the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) of 2004 where censorship by the state first surfaced. The call for entries for MIFF 2004 introduced a clause that made it mandatory for Indian filmmakers to produce censor certificates for their films in order to be eligible for participation in the festival. The history of MIFF had never seen a clause like that since its inception in 1990. In fact, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting relaxes the ‘censor certificate’ rule for films that are showing at film festivals and exhibitions. MIFF and other festivals like it were known to be an avenue for filmmakers to express themselves freely and exhibit their work to an audience. MIFF is the Mumbai counterpart to festivals at Kolkata, Bangalore and Trivandrum. Most of the documentary films are politically and socially relevant and tend to assume strong stances quite unlike the staid and politically inert mainstream cinema in India.
There was widespread protest from documentary filmmakers, which led to the withdrawal of the clause, but there was tacit censorship through the selection process. The festival authorities under the influence of political bosses in the state machinery eliminated several films, such as Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution and Sanjay Kak’s Words on Water. These and many other films were seen as ‘uncomfortable’ and were deemed unfit to be showcased on account of their content.
These restrictions to their right to expression led filmmakers to join together and embark on an interesting and courageous campaign against censorship. With this regard Patwardhan writes, “Over 275 filmmakers exchanged ideas, drew up action plans, organized a Campaign Against Censorship (CAC) and threatened to boycott MIFF if the censor certificate requirement was not withdrawn. As a result of a united and popular campaign the rules for MIFF were amended again and the censorship clause withdrawn.” And it didn’t just stop at that. The united members who worked for this campaign went on to create a festival of their own holding screenings parallel to the screenings of MIFF. Since they were denied space to express themselves openly at avenues like MIFF, they created a space for themselves where there would be no such restrictions. The festival/movement was christened Vikalp, films for freedom.
So after pooling in Rs 1000 each, the filmmakers went on a search for a venue to screen their films and found an appropriate place close to the venue of the MIFF. An erstwhile printing press of the Communist Party of India (CPI) that was converted to a screening hall, with curtains on windows and a screen on one of the walls, served as their initial space for resistance. Surabhi Sharma, an independent filmmaker reiterates the view that Vikalp was born from a protest. “Vikalp has its roots in a very different moment as opposed to other film societies. Vikalp was born out of a protest of independent filmmakers to the censorship at MIFF in 2004. A counter film festival was organised parallel to MIFF that year. It was a brief moment that brought us all together.”
It is unfortunate that the Hindi film industry tends to sideline and overshadow any parallel form of cinema, be it regional films or documentary cinema. In the so called film capital of India, documentary filmmakers have battled with mainstream Hindi cinema from production to exhibition for their films. Bollywood has always catered to the needs of the market as opposed to the need to challenge or question societal norms. This is a view echoed by Surabhi Sharma who adds, “Mainstream cinema is defined and dictated by marketing, whereas the independent documentary rejects this market-based system of filmmaking.” However with self-built avenues like Vikalp, the future seems a little brighter for daring and expressive independent filmmakers.
Over the years, the state seems to have cosied up to the Bollywood mainstream and its peculiar brand of politically neutral films and pot-boiler entertainers quite well. Bollywood has lobbied hard for an ‘industry status’, and powerful regional cinema in South India have successfully fended off ‘outside cinema’ in the guise of protecting a language. In this seemingly hostile environment, a rare breed of politically and socially conscious filmmakers have in the course of their films taken on critical issues against the State, the ruling classes and vested interests. There are restrictions on such filmmakers in the form of limited access to public screenings and the censor certificate as a necessary condition for public screenings. The Indian government had held a virtual monopoly over the financing, production, and distribution of documentary films in India primarily through two regulatory bodies, the Films Division and the Central Board of Film Certification. The Films Division is the ‘media unit’ of the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and produces more documentaries than any other organization in the world, distributing over fifty feature-length documentaries and newsreels to over 10,000 cinemas annually. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is responsible for reviewing, rating, and certifying all films, advertisements and promotional material that appear in cinemas and on television in India. Together, the Films Division and the CBFC have allowed the Indian government to develop a prolific, yet carefully regulated, documentary film industry in India.
An interesting aspect of the issue is that often controversial documentaries which have obtained censor board approval can still be stopped from screening by local authorities under the guise of creating public unrest. With movements such as Vikalp, alternative spaces have now created by independent filmmakers and the regulation of documentary film industry by the state has been challenged. Surabhi Sharma adds, “Within a year many of us in different cities decided to take ownership of creating film viewing spaces rather than wait for someone else to do it. Screening initiatives began in Bangalore, Delhi and many other places.” It is because of Vikalp and other movements like it that there are now exciting alternatives to create public spaces for a vibrant, conscious filmmaking community to engage with the audience on an independent platform.
Photos: Munmun Dhalaria