Films often mirror societies and filmmakers are the people to present these mirrors in a form that’s hard to ignore. They highlight the problems, not to perpetuate them, but to ensure that the right action is taken to correct these problems, something that is especially true for cultural and societal issues. These realities may be hard to swallow, but why it’s important that they’re not ignored. They can begin public discourse and bring public attention important issues. These debates could even lead to social movements that eventually lead to policy changes.
None of this is possible, however, if films and filmmakers are censored time and time again. When filmmakers are silenced, so are our societal complaints.
Here’s a list of filmmakers that often find themselves on India’s censorship shitlist, along with everything they’ve been silenced for.
1. Deepa Mehta
Indo-Canadian director and screenwriter Deepa Mehta is perhaps best known for her elements trilogy – Fire, Earth and Water. 2 of those 3 films, however, are elemental examples of societal outrages and institutional censorship in India. Her film, Fire, was released in 1998 by the censor board without any cuts except for the demand that the protagonist should be called Nita instead of Sita. The film was one of the first Indian films to not only explicitly show a homosexual relationship but to also make it sex its central theme. It was critical to loveless arranged marriages and forced domesticity of women after they were married. As a result, cinemas across the country were vandalized by members of the Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and BJP. The film was even sent back to the censor board for reevaluation. India was not ready for a sexual or cultural awakening.
Almost 10 years later when Deepa Mehta began filming water, a film about the ostracism faced by rural Indian widows, protestors stormed and destroyed the set. Mehta had to wait a few years, change the shooting location and cast and operate under a fake project name to eventually make the film. Water eventually garnered critical acclaim, it was even nominated for an Academy Awards, but from Canada, not Indian.
2. Anurag Kashyap
Ever since his first film, Paanch, in 2003 (which remains unreleased even today), Anurag Kashyap has had run-ins with censors in some form for almost every one of his projects. His films usually cover crime underbellies, corruption, and inefficiency of law enforcement and break down the nitty gritties of some of the biggest crime organisations in the country. Considering the subjects he covers, his films generally contain violence, bad language and alcohol and drug abuse, making him a lifetime member of the censorship shitlist. Paanch remains unreleased because it contained all the aforementioned elements.
While all his other films were released, getting there was a bumpy road for them for the same reasons. Perhaps the only film that faced a form of censorship that was legitimate was Black Friday. Black Friday was a detailed look into the planning and the intelligence agency’s attempt to foil the 1993 Bombay bombings. The release of the film was delayed by 3 years after the people mentioned in the movie (ones that were the alleged perpetrators of the bombings) filed a petition to stay the release, fearing that the film may sway public opinion against them.
3. Vishal Bhardwaj
Filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj’s story is similar to that of Anurag Kashyap’s. His films have also been pulled up for violence and bad language, putting him on the shit list. His film Omkara, released in 2006, was a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. It was pulled up by the censor board for bad language. While some thought the language was unnecessary, other believed it added to the setting of the film, depicting true realities. Kaminey (2009) was pulled up for violence. Bhardwaj protested against the ‘A’ rating the film was given by saying the violence was ‘comic book kind’. It was also singled out for hurting religious and cultural sentiment, and the offending parts were subsequently altered.
The most problematic of his films was Haider, released in 2014. A loose adaptation of Hamlet, the film was set in Kashmir and showed human rights violations by the India Armed Forces. The censor board demanded 41 cuts from the film, including shots of nudity and gore. It was eventually released and critically acclaimed for unabashedly covering one of India’s most sensitive regions and subjects.
4. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
The reason Sanjay Leela Bhansali finds himself on the censorship shitlist is that most of his films heavily cover Indian culture and heritage. Political outfits like the Shiv Sena and Karni Sena are quick to take offense at artistic license that alters history, putting most of Bhansali’s recent films in their line of vision. The first movie to encounter a problem with the censor board was Ramleela. Representatives of many religious groups issued stay petitions because the name ‘Ramleela’ was the story of Lord Ram, while the movie had nothing to do with that. The name of the movie was eventually changed to ‘Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela’. Both Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat faced objections for being historically inaccurate. While the Bombay High Court rejected the petition to stay the release of Bajirao Mastani, the controversy around Padmaavat was not so easily squashed. Members of the Rajput Karni Sena claimed the film portrayed the Rajput queen Padmini inaccurately. Meanwhile, some Muslim leaders said that Alauddin Khilji was portrayed badly. The protests against the release of this film even turned violent. Eventually, the film’s name was changed from ‘Padmaavati’ to ‘Padmaavat’ and was released only in some states.
Even his 2010 film Guzaarish, which addressed euthanasia, ran into legal trouble. A PIL was filed claiming that the film promoted euthanasia and that it should include a disclaimer stating that it did not. However, this case was dismissed in court.
5. Abhishek Chaubey
Filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey has the smallest filmography compared to everyone else on this list, but he also has a 100% success rate of being on the shitlist. All 3 of his films – Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya and Udta Punjab – ran into problems with the censor board. While Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya only faced flak for language and explicit content. The controversy around Udta Punjab was enough to put Chaubey on this list.
Based on the drug menace in the state of Punjab, Udta Punjab contained profanity and detailed scenes of drug use. When submitted for certification, the censor board listed 94 cuts for the film, saying that the film may encourage drug use instead of discouraging it.
At the time, the board was headed by Pahlaj Nihalani, possibly the board’s most controversial chairperson. The film’s producer Anurag Kashyap fought the censor board in court and the film was eventually released with only one cut and tons of disclaimers.
Can you think of any other filmmakers who should be on this shitlist? Or any movies that were banned which shouldn’t have been?
Tell us about it in the comments below.