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Civil Liberties and Indian Cinema

12/02/2009 21:38

In 1983, Marienella Garcia Villas was murdered by the Salvadoran Army members. His crime - he was the President of the Human Rights Commission in El Salvador, investigating the use of chemical weapons and bombing by the state on civilians. He was immortalised by a Dutch filmmaker, Frank Diamond, who shot a moving film, examining the evidence of human rights violations interspersed with interviews of the witness of the incident of his murder.

See almost a different picture elsewhere. Another noted human rights activist, President of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, A. Ramanadham, a doctor by profession, was brutally killed by the police in broad daylight, while he was attending his patients. Obviously there was protests and obituaries. But no filmmaker in India came forward to portray the gruesome event.

As it is seen, the ‘film’ and ‘human rights’ seem to be two opposing terms in Indian context. It is also difficult to define precisely, what is a ‘human rights’ film. In fact a wide range of films, even films deal with interpersonal issues could be termed as human rights film. But our concern is more specific. The film, which portrays or deals with the rights guranteed by the state to protect by virtue of its signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its curbing or violations by the state or other agencies.

The cinema arrived to the Indian audience practically at the same time as their western brothers experienced it. So was the concept of human rights or civil liberties. Under the repressive colonial rule they also had the long history of civil rights movement. The forming of the first civil liberties organisation in India dates back to 1936 with the participation of none other than Poet Rabindra Nath Tagore and other dignitaries like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, and Dr. S. K. Menon. But the Indian cinema, which had already started talking a few years ago, was almost silent on raising the issues of civil liberties. Not only thematically or in content, none could expect even a little reference of it in the chunks of celluloid projected onto the screen. The situation still persists even on today in regard to the ‘mainstream’ cinema comprising mostly of Hindi and other regional languages, that churns out about 800 odd films per year on average, making India the largest film producing country in the world.

While retrospecting the past, the absence of the concept of civil liberties in Indian cinema becomes more conspicuous when we find that despite all odds, keeping in touch with the time, social reformist themes were also taken up, although poured into commercial format. In Himanshu Roy’s ‘Achchhyut Kanya’ anti-casteism was presented in the form of melodramatic love-story. Nitin Bose’s ‘Didi’ dealt with the workers rights in profit as well as management of the company. The films of the 30’s and 40’s derived much of its inspiration from the nationalist movement. A film on the biography of Vallahar, a 19th century Tamil saint, who preached against casteism titled ‘ Jothi Ramalingaswamigal’ was also made. The reforms advocated in the films of the times were in tune with the social an religious reforms advocated by nationalist political leaders an social reformers in the area of child-marriage, alcoholism, dowry, widow re-marriage, caste system etc.

Notion of Civil liberties

Let us delve into the psyche of the predecessors of our civil liberties movement as well as their effects on and attitude towards cinema, which turned the question of civil liberties into an anathema. At the inauguration of the Civil Liberties Union ( CLU ) in Mumbai on 24 August 1936 Nehru said ” the question of civil liberties arises not when the people of a country obediently carry out the orders of the government. It arises only when there is a conflict between the people and the executive authority. The idea of civil liberties is to have the right to oppose the government”. According to Sadananda Menon, a civil liberties proponent of recent years who wrote in 1986 that,” it was merely this notional opposition to the government that the movement had always provided”.

On the other hand we find the notion of civil liberties very straight from the early anarchists like Peter Kropotkin and others. The notion of fundamental contradiction between the State and the individual. In his words ” essentially every state has always one purpose: to limit, control, subordinate the individual and subject him to a general purpose. Through its censorship - legal or moral and its suppression, the sstate tries to obstruct all free activity and sees the repression as its duty”. Thus the fundamental opposition to the state, the fundamental anxiety for the autonomy for the individual has to be the basic premise of civil liberties. It does not mean merely ‘opposition to the government’ but in effect freedom from it.
The concept of the CLU was far from it. It also had no mass appeal as it was never meant for a mass organisation, though there was no restriction on anyone becoming a member. As the Indian cinema was primarily aimed at as a cheap lowbrow culture, the question of civil liberties could never get any foothold in the domain of it. Besides, there was no protest against this indifference by those who led the civil liberties movement as they did not consider cinema as a worthwhile case.

Apathy and censorship

By 1947, the Indian cinema had in fact degenerated into a form of mindless entertainment- a view also fostered by the film industry itself.To the members of the national government, who were earlier in the civil liberties movement, the idea of entertainment was anathema. According to the Film Enquiry Committee Report in 1951, they looked upon the pleasure derived from seeing films as bordering on the ’sinful’ or regarded cinema as an ‘instrument of moral degeneration’. In spite of cinema’s capabilities of remarkable hold on audiences and its unrivalled potentialities for informing, influencing and shaping public opinion, the ‘degenerated form’ of Indian cinema neither attracted the attention of the civil libertarians to make it a useful tool to propagate their vision nor the filmmakers dared to intrude upon the undeclared prohibited zone of civil liberties.

Besides society’s indifference towards projection of civil liberties issues through film, the other reason, which attributed to the attitude was censorship. Despite Nehru’s liberal views on censorship, by now it is probably more restrictive in India than any other democratic country. The government is still constantly under pressure from both the houses to intensify the censor rather than to ease it. Although the restriction imposed mostly on moral ground, one cannot ignore the facts of ‘Kissa Kursi Ka’ incident during the emergency days.

Three milestones

In the fifties there emerge a new consciousness in Indian cinema in respect of art as well as society. Ritwik Ghatak’s ‘Nagarik (Citizen) made in 1952 is one of the rare films to show the reality of post 47 India, specifically that of Bengal. It was a critique of the ‘independence’ that had just been achieved, which did not bring any emancipation of the people. With ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the road) came Satyajit Ray with his universal humanism - which was the legacy of Bengal renaissance. Both Ray an Ghatak’s film depicted the nuances of human relationship, often touched upon but never questioned directly the rights of human being by means of their camera. Started with leftist - humanist approach Mrinal Sen left alone to continue making his highly political propagandist film. In the 60’s and late 70’s his highly inflammable-in Indian context - ‘Interview’, ‘Calcutta 71', and Padatik (The Guerilla fighter) advocated extreme form of socialism and attack political an social institutions. Later he retreads back into his early humanist approach. A social conscious Sen later joined in human rights activities and was the first President of the ‘ Indian Peoples Human Rights Commission’.

Good Cinema and its Pitfalls

The emergence of an ‘alternative’ cinema movement in the 70’s and onwards largely linked with government support by way of film finance, training, festivals etc. Many good films with genuine cause have been made with government finance and could co-exist alongside the mainstream cinema with reactionary and often anti-social content, which was allowed to flourish unhindered. M.S. Sathyu’s ‘Garm Hawa’ described the trauma of the partition of India - however eventually the film was first bannned on the ground of instigation to communal dissension and later received a national award after lifting of the ban. Girish Karnad’s ‘Chomana Dudi’, a remarkable chronicle of the plights of a harijan family. Although the decades of 60’s and 70’s witnessed many struggles of the working poor to better their conditions. The visions of the independence had already died down. People became more restive. And as a reaction these two decades in India, we experienced the most repressive state-machinery. There was possibility of coming up of a genuine alternative cinema, free from government intervention to portray the real faces of Indian democracy. But the possibility was subverted when government entered into the scene with awards, funds and opportunities to promote ‘good cinema’. And thus the vitality and energy needed to focus on the cruelest face of the state itself, were channalised. On the other hand even the faint voices were silenced with utmost ruthlessness. In one occasion the students of the Film Institute of Pune, while filming a documentary on Mumbai’s slum area, the police intervened, demanded the films already shot, mutilated the film an returned it. The police did not allow them to shoot even a demonstration. The Institute authorities complied in this police behavior and in fact rebuked the students.

The films of this period by Shyam Benegal, Sayeed Mirza, Govinda Nihalni and few others in Hindi, Goutam Ghosh, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Utpalendu Chakraborty in Bengal, Girish Kasaravally in Karnataka, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and John Abraham in Kerala in the 70’s and 80’s onward dealt with human problems and with human point of view. Utpalendu Chakraborty’s ‘ Mukti Chai’ dealt with demand for release of the political prisoners in Bengal. In a film in the early 90’s the death of Rajan, victim of the custodial death in Kerala was obliquely referred in Shahji Karan’s ‘Piravi’.

Documentary cinema and Ananda Patwardhan

The scene seems not so bleak when we shift our focus to Indian Documentary scene. The turbulent decade of 70’s and 80’s which gave birth to a new protests and movements also faced an authoritarian regime, which snatched away all constitutional and civil rights from an average Indian. It was also beginning of a new kind of cinema that was hitherto unknown, transcended all boundaries of Indian cinema. It was Anand Patwardhan’s ‘Waves of Revolution (1975)’, a record of the unfolding events of the Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement, when it was on the verge of taking off. It not only shows the ongoing movement and repression, but the views of the perpetrators also. His next film ‘Prisoners of Conscience ( 1979 ) depicts the inhuman condition of jail inmates ( political & criminal ) and about struggles of others to free them.’Bombay Hamara Sahar’ (1985) on the movement against unauthorised hutment demolition . His film ‘Ram Ke Nam ( In the Name of God ) (1992) documents the attempt of hindu militants to forcibly construct the Ram temple at Ajodhya. The films of Patwardhan, though not very innovative technically but have an anti-state repression orientation and genuine concern for human rights. Tapan Bose and Suhasini Mulay’s film on Union Carbide gas disaster, ‘Beyond Genocide’ (1984), Vasudha Joshi and Ranjan Palit’s ‘Voices from Baliapal’ on the peoples movement against the setting up a national test range in Baliapal, Orissa, documents important events led to the violation of human rights.

This can happen here

The changing scenario in the socio-political arena in the late 70’s gave birth to new consciousness of civil liberties and human rights. Many civil liberties organisations sprang up in India during this period. The determination and sustained work of these organisations exposed several incidents of state repression. In result several organisation and activities fell under the wrath of state machinery. Several activists were physically assaulted, tortured even were brutally killed. Another kind of social/political ostracism took place by labeling the activists as ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’. But their continuous struggle for civil liberties is also encouraging the common people to seek justice, when victimised by state repression. Like the famous Costa Gavras’s ‘Missing’ more parents are in continuance in struggle in and outside the judiciary for their missing sons and daughters. The battles of the parents of the victim of infamous custodial deaths of Rajan in Kerala or Subhankar Sarangi and Kamal Thakur in West Bengal in search of justice are exemplary to others and which also indicates the inherent contradiction between the individual and the state. All of these are triumphs of civil liberties. It can not be propagated or projected through ‘mainstream’ cinema, comprise mostly of Hindi film and other regional cinema, which most often not only projects a pro-state bias, upholds the value of the establishment and authority of the state machinery like army, police etc. But, at least, we can hope the possibility of emerging of an another kind of cinema sympathetic to the causes of civil liberties in tune with the civil liberties movement in India.

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"Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls."
-Ingmar Bergman

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