‘Truth or Dare’
(by Shanta Gokhale | Mid-Day | August 17, 2004)

Mumbai's film festivals have suddenly become centres of turbulence. Early this year, Mumbai International Film Festival was buffeted by a storm that ultimately destroyed some of its credibility. It had dropped from its programme all films that dared to speak of what had happened in Gujarat. Now the Third Eye Asian Film Festival, starting here on Saturday, has been struck by turbulence for its decision to drop two of the five films it had originally planned to screen in its Tibetan package.

The fight in both cases revolves around the right to information; and in both cases the suppressor of information has been, overtly or covertly, the State.

The protest launched by 200-odd filmmakers against MIFF resulted in a parallel film festival, Vikalp - Films for Freedom. It was a roaring success, partly because the events leading up to it had already exposed the partisan attitude and machinations of the MIFF organisers, who understandably didn.t want more egg on their faces; but also because the organisers took precautions to remain within the law. Strategy rather than an open challenge to MIFF was their operating principle.

When the next festival of Films for Freedom took place in Bangalore at the end of July, the organisers announced it loudly from the rooftops as a festival of 'uncensored films'. In openly challenging the censoring authority, they played straight into the hands of the enemy.

They should have known that, with the rise of the right wing in Karnataka, its satellite outfits would be raring for a fight. They had to show the janata who had the muscle; who was the boss.

Bosses as a species feel profoundly slighted when their powers are challenged and their authority called in question. As soon as the regional board of censors in Bangalore, reported the festival organisers. defiance to their boss Anupam Kher in Mumbai, Kher reacted as any boss would. With anger. "They announced the event as a showing of uncensored films. This showed defiance for the censors," he has admitted in an interview to Tehelka.

"Naturally the department had to do its job. The problem in Bangalore," he adds for good measure, "was the element of defiance."

Elaborating further on his anger, he offers the following analogy: "If tomorrow somebody decides to urinate on the road as part of his freedom of expression, is he to be allowed to do so? It's only in the field of art and culture that we make a noise about exercising our fundamental rights."

Thankfully, Kher is wrong on all counts here. First of all, the aam aadmi too is making very loud noises about fundamental rights, particularly the right to information.

Why else would the government of Maharashtra enact a law in its favour? Secondly the filmmakers he wishes to see repressed are not "art and culture" people. They are investigators into the state of our nation.

And finally, aam aadmis are unlikely to turn up in their hundreds to watch and applaud someone urinating on the street, whereas they did do so to watch the Films for Freedom, including Final Solution, banned by Kher's outfit.

Against this background, one is not surprised that the Tibetan package in the Third Eye Asian Film Festival has been shorn of Martin Scorsese.s Kundun and Jean Jacques Annaud.s Seven Years in Tibet, the two films that represent a view other than the official Chinese view on the Tibetan situation.

The festival committee has reportedly been pressurised by the Chinese Consulate in Mumbai to drop the films. One does not know whether the pressure has been applied officially with the Indian government's backing, or whether it is one of those understandings between governments in which citizens are expected to cooperate. However, Mr Sudhir Nandgaokar, who heads the festival committee, has decided to cooperate.

Tenzin Tsundue, the general secretary of Friends of Tibet (INDIA), partners in the acquiring of the five films, has made a fervent appeal to Nandgaokar to show 'sensitivity and courage'. But his cry is bound to be drowned out in the overwhelming potency of the Chinese whisper. Mr Nandgaokar is a well-meaning film buff. He has done much for the film society movement in the city and can be counted on to lend his support to ventures in that field.

But never has he been called upon to be a hero. He must find himself totally unequipped for the task of sticking his neck out for the cause of truth. All he must want is a happy festival free of controversy. Perhaps Friends of Tibet need to have a talk with Rakesh Sharma. While he is likely to take the Censor Board head on for refusing to even see his film, leave alone give it a censor certificate, thousands of DVD copies of his film are in circulation. How did he manage that?

Truth has always had to fight for its space, everywhere, but particularly in our country with its famous motto, Satyamev Jayate. Fortunately our Constitution and the Law are on our side. But while legal arguments grind on, a bit of subterfuge in the interests of truth does no harm. As a matter of fact, it works better at times than confrontation.