Missing the spirit for the body
The National Board of Film Certification, the ‘Censor Board’ to most Indians, has done it again. It has turned down yet another film. This one, Ka Bodyscapes directed by Jayan Cherian, has the distinction of having been viewed thrice by the Board. By its act the Board has lowered its credibility and by association that of the Indian republic in whose name it acts. It is time that its authority to effectively ban films should go. This not because of its provenance – it is after all a vestige of colonialism - but because by refusing to certify the film in question it has revealed itself as tendentious, driven by prudery, ignorant of India’s history and unmindful of the Constitution.
As Ka Bodyscapes cannot be viewed in the cinema hall and I was not fortunate enough to view it in the private screenings that have taken place in India, I must rely on descriptions of those who have watched it and on the statements of the Board that have made their way into the public domain via the media. So what is the film about? We get an idea from the writ petition filed in the High Court of Kerala seeking restraint on the CFBC’s virtual ban. We are told that it revolves around three characters. Haris is a free-thinking artist who also happens to be a muslim. He is in a relationship with Vishnu who comes from a family of right wingers and is a Hanuman-bhakt himself which presumably makes him hindu but does not bring acceptance from his family. They have a friend in Sia who comes from a conservative background and is as muslim as Haris is. She chooses feminism and faces flak for it. On behalf of the director, the petitioners clarify that the film is about societal attitudes towards individual freedom and not a critique of religion. Finally, the film is set in Kozhikode, a city the rooted cosmopolitanism of which belies its size.
Now what are the Board’s objections? I rely on what is reported in the media. Thus, on March 3, it was reported in The Hindu that the Board has reasoned thus “… the film is glorifying the subject of gay and homosexual relationship, nudity accentuating vital parts of male body (in paintings). The film is explicit of scene offending Hindu sensibilities depicting vulgarity and obscenity through the movie.” There is also recourse to the trope of ‘law and order’. It is extraordinary for an order from a public body that there is no trace of reasoning to be found in all this. The Board appears innocent of both our storied past as a people or of the Indian constitution. Temple sculpture celebrates sexual union of every kind, which only the philistine miss. Moreover, there is no stricture against the depiction of nudity in Hinduism. Further, the Board appears to not have heard of court judgements which categorically reject the argument of ‘law and order’ as a criterion for banning a film. As for religious sensibilities, the Constitution gives an individual the freedom to practice his or her religion but not the right to be protected from any reference to it that may be interpreted as giving offence. All practices are open to scrutiny and no ‘religious immunity’ is on offer. India is a secular republic and, accordingly, no special rights are accorded to religion. Therefore, all Indians are subject to the laws of the land. Moreover political rights are due only to individuals. It is by a strange anthomorphosis that sensibility is assigned to a whole religion. A more sensational instance of this was when Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ was banned. By taking recourse to religion the Board has left it easier to challenge its ruling.
It is true that in India religious identity is often an ascriptive marker of persons and it is difficult to get very far away from it. But the role of public institutions in a democracy is to ween society away from this practice by weighing in on behalf of individuals trying to break free of oppressive social custom so long as this does not violate the freedom of others. It is not obvious that Ka Bodyscapes comes even close to achieving the last. If religions are to be granted sensibility and the religious is the only identity a person is allowed to have, in this instance India’s religions must find the film affirming, because when forming intimate associations with persons of other religions we seemingly recognise one another’s religion. But, actually, all this is utterly irrelevant in the context as religion should have no role to play in determining the sexual lives of people. The CBFC cannot be allowed to get away with the pettiness that it hides behind the fig leaf of religion. It’s beef clearly is with “glorifying the subject of homosexuality”, by which prospect the Board is clearly shocked. It cannot be unaware that much of what Bollywood does is the untiring propagation of the heteronormative ideal in human relations. The Board has taken the law into its own as there is no legal stricture on the representation of homosexuality in any form. It has gratuitously gone the extra mile. Even Macaulay had contended himself with the somewhat blunt shield of Section 377 of the IPC which is applicable to all Indians. It is a reflection of the career of cultural fascism in India that the rights of Indians of an alternative sexual orientation can be taken away so casually. The right at stake is that of affirmative representation.
There are three ways of seeing Ka Bodyscapes. The first one is the construction that it is an affront to religion. Of the three, it is the most simplistic. Consider the imaginary of Indra’s youthful companions the marut as men in the sky who relish one another’s bodies. Devout Hindus are not upset by this picture as they treat it as beside the point of their belief. The Board reveals its lack of understanding of so confident a religion when it rushes unsolicited to its defence. The second is to see it as a story of friendship between a hindu and a muslim directed by a christian. The academic secularists would be made happy by this characterisation but it gives primacy to religion, which is what the film is trying to get away from. The most promising way of seeing the film is to see it as showing how Indians are rejecting social strictures to follow their instincts. I am entirely open to the possibility that whenever I do get to watch Jayan’s film I might find it unappealing. Many films on the same theme clumsily purvey stereotypes, are historically inaccurate and politically naive. However, accounts are that this one at least presents gay relationships in a self-affirming way for a change. In its design to torpedo the project the Board may have unwittingly done more for the gay movement in India than they care to, for as Oscar Wilde had put it “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is to be not talked about.” And, it may have scuttled the possibility of Ka Bodyscapes being watched in the cinemas, but there’s always Amazon.
Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor of economics of Ashoka University, Sonipat and Senior Fellow of IIM, Kozhikode