India: Actor challenges theatre censorship in court

13 October 2016

On 20 September 2016, veteran actor and filmmaker Amol Palekar filed a petition to the Bombay High Court to challenge the Maharashtra state’s pre-censorship of plays, the practice of needing censor board approval of scripts before plays can be staged, reported news outlet The Quint on 28 September 2016.

Of the 29 states in India, theatre artists continue to contend with pre-censorship in only two states – Maharashtra and Gujarat. On 26 September 2016 the Maharashtra state government informed the court that the pre-censorship practice ended in March 2016 when the police commissioner repealed the rule, reported Hindustan Times on 4 October 2016.

However, though the practice may be repealed on the books, according to writers and playwrights the practice continues by the Maharashtra State Scrutiny Board, which assesses scripts and performances “for regulation in the interest of public order, decency or morality”.

“The Board acts as a watchdog, because the kind of scripts we get have elements that can upset society. Our job is to avoid that,” chairman of the scrutiny board Arun Nalavade told Hindustan Times.

In his petition, Palekar said that the pre-censorship of play scripts only occurs in Maharashtra and Gujarat, and that “if the same play is to be performed in any other place in India, the same can be presented without curtailing artistic freedom of expression”. Further, the petition adds that the current members of the scrutiny board in Maharashtra, who joined the board a year ago, have thus far assessed 5,675 plays and performances, reported The Times of India on 20 September 2016.

The hearing on Palekar’s petition was scheduled to take place on 4 October 2016, but has been postponed to 18 October to give the state government time to file an affidavit. However, presiding judge Chief Justice Chellur said this was the government’s “last chance” to file and if they do not do so on time, the court will take it that “the government has nothing to say” and will proceed with the case, reported The Indian Express on 8 October 2016.

Taking censorship to task
There is a growing wave of artists in India resisting censorship mechanisms and traditions in the country.

Before Palekar took the scrutiny board to court, playwrights and performers in February 2016 in Maharashtra and Gujarat openly criticised and questioned their state boards for suggesting 19 cuts to a Marathi play entitled ‘Jai Bhim, Jai Bharat’. The controversy led to a public debate centred on questioning whether such theatre censorship and scrutiny boards for theatre are relevant or even necessary, not only because censoring live performances that can change night to night is next to impossible, but also because they are the only remaining states to have them.

However, theatre isn’t the only genre that is garnering resistance from artists. Film in India, as well as the role of the country’s controversial Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and its head, Pahlaj Nihalani, has also come under fire for its widespread censorship.

Anurag Kashyap, film producer of controversial film ‘Udta Punjab’, took the CBFC to the Bombay High Court in June 2016 over its decision to only grant approval for the film’s release if it made an unprecedented 94 cuts to the film. The court ruled in the film’s favour, approving its release with only one cut. Further, the court advised that the board’s job was to certify films, not censor them, and that they should not be “over-sensitive” in their work.

Also in June 2016, directors and film workers in southern India held a sit-in protest at the regional CBFC office in Thiruvananthapuram to protest cuts the board demanded to film ‘Kathakali’, which was one of at least six films that were censored or not approved for screening by the CBFC that month.

How theatre censorship works in Maharashtra
Those who want to stage a play in Maharashtra state need to submit a copy of their script to the scrutiny board for approval, which consists of 41 members of the theatre community who are elected to the board by the state’s cultural affairs department. Two members then read the script and if they disagree a third member is brought in.

If consensus isn’t reached, the chairman calls for a board meeting. Once a decision is reached, they communicate with the playwright, director or producer what cuts they suggest and what rating they would give the play. If the artist does not agree with the decision, they can ask for a board meeting and can ultimately take legal action if consensus is not reached.

Before March 2016, after a script was cleared, the artist then had to request a performance license from the Mumbai Police license department. However, though that step is no longer necessary, a license is still needed from the local police station where the performance’s venue is located.

Theatre censorship in Maharashtra began almost 70 years ago, dating back to a traditional form of Marathi theatre called Tamasha, which includes singing and dancing. In 1951, the Board for Prior Scrutiny of Tamasha was created in response to the exploitation of women in these performances. This board then changed in the 1970s to the current board, reported The Quint.

How theatre censorship works in Gujarat and elsewhere
The censorship board in Gujarat is also comprised of elected members of the theatre community, and, at least according to one playwright and drama critic in the state, Shailesh Tevani, the board is “very liberal”.

“We do have a censor board, but the members are all playwrights and theatre actors and directors. The board members are elected by the Gujarat Sangeet Natak Akademi and the state government. But the Board is very liberal. We are even free to stage anti-establishment plays, but we don’t name people or parties,” Tevani told Hindustan Times.

However, Delhi-based director Sayeed Alam told the newspaper that as an outsider to the state he has had a different experience:

We had already staged a play called ‘Maulana Azad’ across the country. We wanted to stage it in Gujarat. But the censor board there objected to a line in the play where Maulana Azad says, ‘Sardar Patel was perhaps the founder of India’s partition’. I explained to them that it was not a line written by the scriptwriter, but had been taken from Maulana Azad’s book, ‘India Wins Freedom’. The censor board wanted us to cut out that line. We didn’t agree, so we couldn’t stage it. A few years later we did stage the play in Gujarat, but that was at a private show.

Meanwhile, in Delhi, any performance requires a license from the Delhi police licensing department, accompanied with a brief synopsis of the performance, including artist details and programme content.

A police officer in the licensing department told Hindustan Times that if they think the performance “may lead to a law and order problem” they contact the local police station where the performance is set to take place and ask them to investigate. The officer added that even after a license is granted, if complaints come in about the performance, the organisers and venue owners will be served a notice and licenses may be revoked.

Alam has said that despite such practices, performing in Delhi has gotten easier as now artists such as himself only have to apply for a license in one place, rather than the five to six agencies of the police department they had to do in the past.

According to censorship and licensing rules in Mumbai and Delhi, some of the criteria that can hinder an artist’s performance includes:

  • Profanity or improper language
  • Vulgar or indecent dress, dance, movement or gesture
  • Denigration of a caste, community or gender
  • Offensive representation of political figures
  • Naming living politicians
  • Words or phrases likely to incite feelings of sedition or political discontent
  • Any content that may stoke communal disharmony, cause a riot, breach peace, cause religious disharmony or wound the religious feelings of any individual or class of individuals

Apart from censorship at the hands of government bodies, artists in India also have to contend with far-right groups like Shiv Sena and religious groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, both of which initiate protests against any artistic work it finds offensive or immoral, whether for sexual, political or religious content.


» The Indian Express – 8 October 2016:
Play censorship: Bombay HC asks govt to file affidavit on Amol Palekar’s plea

» Hindustan Times – 4 October 2016:
To stage or not to stage: Theatre censorship in India

» The Quint – 28 September 2016:
Theatre & censorship: Challenges playwrights face in Maharashtra

» The Times of India – 20 September 2016:
Amol Palekar moves high court against ‘pre-censorship’ of play scripts

More from Freemuse

» 23 August 2016: India: Artists struggle with censors over LGBT and other themes

» 8 February 2016: India: Controversy over State Censor Board for Theatre

» 26 November 2015: India: Pakistani actors banned in Maharashtra state

» 2 November 2015: India: Pakistani singer’s concerts cancelled after protests

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