IFFI: Sexy Durga director to file contempt of court petition

In an interview to Newslaundry, Sanal Sasidharan speaks about the Kerala High Court judgement, the singling out of his film, the censorship of creative freedom in India and more. 

ByCherry Agarwal
IFFI: Sexy Durga director to file contempt of court petition
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The 48th edition of International Film Festival of India (IFFI) began in Goa on November 20 without Ravi Jadhav’s Marathi movie Nudeand Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Malayalam film S Durga. While earlier editions of IFFI have been in the news because of the movies that were screened, this time the festival made headlines for not screening two films, those of Jadhav and Sasidharan’s.

Even though the films were on IFFI jury’s screening list, an intervention by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, headed by Smriti Irani, resulted in the films being dropped. Sasidharan’s S Durga is a thriller exploring the politics of a man-woman relationship, while Jadhav’s Nude is about the lives of nude models in art schools. Speaking to Newslaundry, the S Durga director said the treatment given to the films has been “totally unfair.”

As matters stand, the Kerala High Court on Wednesday, November 21, came to Sasidharan’s rescue. The one-judge bench not only overruled the objections for exclusion raised by the I&B Ministry, but it also directed IFFI organisers to “include and exhibit” S Durga in the festival’s Indian Panorama section.

Justice K Vinod Chandran, who heard the matter, also held the CBFC-certified version of the film was entitled to be screened and stated that there was “no substantial variance in the creative content of the movie after CBFC certification.”

However, there has been no official communication from the festival authorities or the Ministry even after the high court order. This makes matters ambiguous, Sasidharan told Newslaundry. Talking about his course of action, the director said that he would be filing a contempt of court petition tomorrow as both IFFI and the Ministry have failed to act on the court’s order.

In addition, Sasidharan spoke about the media’s role in ensuring creative expression in India, strengthening institutions for promoting freedom of speech, outrage over S Durga, the politics behind censorship of creative freedom and more.

Despite being recognised internationally, Sexy Durga or S Durga has seen a lot of backlash including 21 audio mutes and alteration of the title. Why? 

It is very unfortunate that people have assumed that Durga [in the film] is a goddess. Actually, we have hundreds of Durgas, several living in slums, possibly raped, and we need to help them. The suggestions were made because of a kind of arrogance, a kind of intolerance in the country.

However, when the government says it [the film] could create a law and order situation then I thought the necessary changes need to be made as it is an important film to India. This film has won many awards and also talks about the truth of our country. So, it is an important film in that way also.

Do you think these were justified? What does it say about creative freedom in India?

The backlash shows India’s depressing state. India, as we all know, is a democratic country and it is the duty of the government to safeguard citizens’ freedom of speech. However, the government is increasingly becoming an institution which is not safeguarding our constitutional rights — freedom of speech in this context. It is not about an artist’s right; it’s about a citizen’s rights. What I am saying is that the current government is totally opposing artistic freedom in India and it is very depressing. They are customising it [films] to their likes and dislikes.

What was the purpose of the film/title? What did you want to communicate with it? 

While putting the name Sexy Durga, I wanted to challenge false and hypocritical mindsets we have. Reading Sexy Durga, people jump to conclusions thinking that Durga is a goddess. However, if we find women named Durga or Saraswati or Parwati or Lakshmi suffering on the street then nobody is going to help out. So the movie was aimed at our society’s hypocritical mindset. I wanted to give the message that we should change our mindset and we should change our society.

So your message was misconstrued? 

Yes, yes. I requested these people [those opposing the movie] to watch the film before jumping to any conclusions. The Censor Board saw the film and they have not even asked me to change even a single frame. They didn’t say that this film can’t be screened. However, even after CBFC approves a movie, it becomes the duty of the government to make sure that the film has no oppression but what the government is doing now is ‘super-censoring’.

There has been a hue and cry about Information and Broadcasting Ministry misusing its powers. However, IFFI can only make recommendations. So did the ministry really overstep its role?

Yes, it is absolutely. What the ministry is doing is unlawful. They have no authority to overlook the jury’s decision, which is binding on all parties including the producer, the film festival director as well as the ministry. What is happening is totally unconstitutional.

Speaking of outrage, do you think that the film called for such censorship?

Much before all these incidents, I had sent a mail to the Ministry clearly stating that I had received the certificate from the Board [CBFC] and that I am ready to screen the film for them. I had already stated that I am ready to change the title also if need be. But there was no response at all [from the ministry]. If there were problems, it could have been discussed and I could have made the changes.

What was the reason behind the ministry’s hounding of the movie?

While I don’t know the reason for this outrage, I think it may be because our country is increasingly becoming undemocratic. A kind of mobocracy, hooliganism is being promoted. And this is unfair. This is totally unfair. This is tarnishing our country’s [reputation].

What was the reason behind such a title? Had you expected such a strong reaction to the movie?

Our country is becoming intolerant day by day. This is very sad and I sadly admit that I had a sense that this can cause a problem. Nevertheless, I wanted people to think about it. I wanted people to re-think and I wanted people to change their mindsets. If I am not doing anything to do that then what kind of artist am I? How can I be called an artist?

The title, however, wasn’t meant to defame or hurt anybody’s emotions. I wanted to do something genuine and that is why I am sticking to that.

Vani Tripathi Tikoo, a member of IFFI 2017’s Steering Committee, was quoted in an interview as saying that the committee was given a list of 22 movies, while they had time to screen only 20 movies. So two movies would have been cut inadvertently. Is that right? 

There is a clause which states that when there is a problem and if a film cannot be screened then they are duty-bound to inform me, the filmmaker. If the process was followed, I would have been okay with that. They could have asked me for CBFC’s certificate, they could have asked me whether I wanted to screen the film with the changes they would have liked to see. These questions were never asked. I have paid Rs 10,000 as application fee, which includes jury fee, they are responsible to inform me. They have caused injury and all kinds of mental agony and pain to me. I can even go for compensation against them.

Will you be filing for compensation?

I might. If this is happening, I might go for that. They have pushed me towards the wall and they are strangling me. What kind of situation is this? They are actually harassing a citizen. It is not a filmmaker’s harassment but a citizen’s.

The ministry had argued that the version of the movie submitted for screening was different from that which was certified by the CBFC. 

That is a purely false argument and has no standing in the court. That is why the court ordered in my favour. The thing is that the Censor Board never asked me to remove anything. Since this is a public film, the I&B Ministry, as well as the festival directorate, must know that. In case that was their reason, they should have asked me.

Now that the Kerala High Court has ordered IFFI to screen S Durga, has a slot/date been finalised for the screening? 

No, until this moment there has been no official communication. I had directly sent my artist from my team with a copy of the order and a letter to the director of the film festival. He was trying to meet the film festival’s director. When he didn’t get an appointment, he went to see him at an open forum in the afternoon. In the midst of all the media, he raised his voice to say that he was a member of S Durga team and presented the letter to him. Following which the director of the film festival left the scene with the artist and the media chasing after.

Has there been any communication from IFFI or the ministry following the court’s decision?

So far there has been no response and the future of the film at IFFI is still ambiguous. They are not ignoring me they are ignoring our country’s judicial system.

So what’s going to be your next step if they don’t give you a date?

This is totally unconstitutional, I am going for contempt of court [proceedings]. I am filing a contempt of court petition tomorrow.

How do you feel after the court’s verdict? Do you think the favourable verdict can set a good precedent that would support creative freedom in the future?

Yes, surely. I love my country and I trust my country will respect my freedom. I am hopeful it will set a great precedent.

What should be the media’s role in ensuring that the space for creative expression doesn’t shrink?

Media has a very important role to play. Media is the only saviour because when even the government is not obeying the order avoiding the [court’s] order, then the media has a very important role to play. I believe that if media was not there this [favourable judgement] would not have happened.

Finally, what are your thoughts about the politics behind censorship of creative freedom in India? Do you think such censorships would discourage creativity in India?

Yes, such censorship definitely discourages creative pursuits because it is not in line with our democratic principles of free speech and expression.

So you are saying that there is a need to strengthen the system when it comes to artistic pursuit?

Yes, absolutely. And people should be given the right to decide what is right and what isn’t.

With IFFI ending on November 28, the lack of action on the part of festival’s committee as well as the ministry to ensure the screening of both these movies may invite judicial rebuke. Speaking of Jadhav’s Nude, Sasidharan feels it might be too late for his film. Newslaundry tried reaching out to Jadhav for his comments. This piece will be updated as and when he responds.

(Transcribed by Mehak Sabharwal, an intern with Newslaundry)

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