Theatre Censorship in Maharashtra

(Talk at Mumbai University, Teachers’ Refresher Course on March 4, 2017)

I have translated many Marathi plays in the last 45 years. I translated the first play in 1970 and a set of four plays last year. So you may say it has been the preoccupation of a lifetime. But I am not going to talk about the process of those translations. I will concentrate instead on the years between 1972 and 1975 when I translated Vijay Tendulkar’s Gidhade and Sakharam Binder and Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Vasanakand. The first play was directed by Dr Shreeram Lagoo, the second by Kamlakar Sarang and the third by Amol Palekar. These translations were special because none of them were done for staging or publishing. They were done for judges who were hearing cases between the Rangabhoomi Prayog Parinirikshan Mandal or Censor Board for Dramatic Performances and the producers of the plays. The censors had asked for cuts which the producers did not wish to accept and had therefore filed cases in court against the Censor Board. The judges hearing the cases, being non-Marathi, could not read the plays. So I was called upon by my friends in theatre to translate them.

The translations always had to be done in a hurry. One of them was actually done overnight. I did not sleep that night. They were therefore basic; accurate enough to give the judges an idea of what they were about without attention to the finer aspects of translation like getting the rhythm right and choosing the best possible equivalents for the original words and phrases. The point I want to stress here regards the very existence of censorship in Maharashtra. Gujarat is the only other State that still censors plays under an act that the British legislated 140 years ago. This has been unacceptable to most theatre practitioners; but it is only recently that one of them, Amol Palekar, has stood up to challenge it in the courts.

Before I come to what is happening in our times, I thought it would be a good idea to acquaint you with the historical background of censorship. Not everybody knows about it or is even aware that it exists.
Censorship of plays began in Bengal because a number of them were overtly political and seen by the British as likely to inflame the nationalistic passions of the people against the government. Lord Northbrook, Governor-General of India, promulgated an ordinance on 29 February 1876, which empowered the Government of Bengal to prohibit certain dramatic performances which were “deemed scandalous, defamatory, seditious, obscene, or otherwise prejudicial to the public interest”. The ordinance was debated in March of the same year in the Viceroy’s Council and the Dramatic Performances Control Bill became a law in December 1876. This became the weapon with which to proscribe nationalistic plays.
Maharashtra was the other centre where plays with political content were being performed. Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar’s play Keechakvadh was staged in Pune in 1907. The play is based on an episode from the Mahabharat known as adnyatvas or living incognito. The pandavas live incognito for a year at the court of King Virat in various disguises.  Keechak is a minister at the court. He attempts to molest Draupadi for which he is assassinated by Bhima. This is the story as it happens. But the way the play was written, it became an allegory of resistance to British rule. The molestation was used as a metaphor for the policies of the British colonial government in India. Keechak represented Lord Curzon: Viceroy to the King, just as Keechak was minister to King Virat. Draupadi represented India and Bhima represented extremist nationalism in contrast to Yudhishthir, who stood for moderate nationalism. The way the play was written and performed incited the audience to anger. This was noticed by an author who was present at a show of the play and went on to write a book about Indian unrest. He noted that the men scowled and the women were in tears when Draupadi entreated Keechak not to dishonour her. And when Bhima slew Keechak, there was a loud sigh of satisfaction.  
Author and British civil servant Dennis Kincaid was asked to write about the sudden rise in revolutionary activities in 1909. Kincaid wrote four articles in the London Times, amongst which was one entitled A seditious play of the Deccan, a critique of the Marathi play Kichak Vadh by K. P. Khadilkar.  The play was cited as an example of sedition. The articles written on 18 January 1910, hastened the passage of the India Press Act of 1910 under which Keechakvadh was banned.  
The Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature mentions that "the London Times, in an eloquent outburst against the play, said in effect, Khadilkar is a most dangerous extremist, and Kichak Vadha is a cleverly veiled incitement to murder the European officials."

The next play I would like to look at is Mama Warerkar’s A-Purva Bangal, written in 1952. The playwright has given an account of the trouble he had getting it approved by government in his autobiography Majha Nataki Sansar (My World of Theatre.)

In those days, the government had not constituted a board of censors as we have now. All plays had to be submitted to the police for permission to perform. Warerkar had written the play for M. G. Rangnekar's theatre company, Natyaniketan. It was based on the Noakhali riots and both writer and producer felt it might create problems with the authorities. Rangnekar had confidence in the Pune police, so he sent it to them for permission. The police sent it back with so many cuts, that it would have been impossible to perform it in that form.

“Not willing to let go of the play, we sent it to the Bombay police,” says Warerkar. “They took an inordinately long time to come to a decision. When they did send the script back to us, they had retained all the cuts that the Pune police had made and added two of their own!”

Warerkar had close contacts with Congress leaders. He was later to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha by Nehru. He approached the Home Minister of Bombay Presidency, Morajibhai Desai with an appeal to look into the case. Provincial elections were approaching and nothing could be done just then. “Morarjibhai asked me to let the case rest till after the elections,” says Warerkar. After the elections, Morarjibhai became the Chief Minister of Bombay Presidency. “I approached him again for A-purva Bangal. He asked us to send the script to his department. His department sent it to the Bombay police. The Bombay police made inquiries with the Pune police. The script came back to us in exactly the same form as earlier but with another passage chopped off. I went back to Morarjibhai. He was annoyed and pained that the ways of the British remained unaltered in free India. He sent the script under his own signature to Oriental Translators. To have a Marathi play translated into English was the first step in the censorship process.

(In the early seventies I replaced Oriental translators which no longer existed!)

“I waited for two months, then called up Oriental Translators,” continues Warerkar. “The chief called for the script which had still not been translated. He said he understood Marathi and would read the original. I was called for a meeting the very next day. He returned the script to me with permission to perform it as it was.”
Censorship passed from the hands of the police to a board constituted in 1951 to frame laws against the exploitation of women in tamashas. As a result, tamashas were “cleaned” of sleaze and the practice of daulatjada, patrons giving money to performers while the show was on, often taking a chance to paw them when they came forward to accept the money. The committee that monitored the sanitization of tamashas transmogrified later, with a few changes, into the Maharashtra Rangbhoomi Parinirikshan Mandal or the Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board.

From this time until the sixties, the board was almost entirely constituted of individuals who had little to do with theatre. By the seventies this had changed. When the censors asked for 35 cuts in Sakharam Binder, theatre scholar Dr Kumud Mehta and writer Dr Sarojini Vaidya were on the Board. However, they could do nothing to turn the majority members' opinion around to see the play in the light in which it was written. If there were obscenities in it, they were an essential part of the character of the chief protagonist of the play. He says right at the start that only two things find a place in his mouth – a bidi or an obscenity. To remove obscenities would have killed his character. But this is what the censors wanted. So Dr Mehta and Dr Vaidya suggested that the director and producer go to court against the decision of 35 cuts. Dr Mehta went further. She set up a meeting for them to meet senior advocate Ashok Desai who had agreed to fight their case.

In planning his strategy, Desai used a case that had caused a stir in the 1960s as a negative lesson that told him what not to do. Back then Partap Sharma's play A Touch of Brightness had been banned by the censors from going to the Edinburgh Festival where it was invited on grounds that it showed the country “in a bad light”. The play was located in the Red Light area of Bombay but the story was not about commercial sex workers. It was about a young boy who befriends a little girl who lives like him on the pavement. But whereas he has a guardian, she has nobody. His possessive guardian feels threatened by this friendship and sells the girl to a brothel. The boy vows to set her free when he grows up and earns enough money to do that. The producer of the play appealed against the ban pleading that it was not obscene. The case went on for six years before it was given a censor certificate. By then, the play had gone cold.

Learning from this experience, Desai decided not to try to prove that  Sakharam Binder was not obscene. Obscenity is a slippery idea to define and arguments about what it is can go back and forth for years. Instead of going down this route, he called the Censor Board's very existence into question because its rules did not allow playwrights and producers to present their case in appeal. This is where I came in. I was called upon to translate the play so that the advocates and judge would know what they were arguning about. Although the hearings, with a show set up for the judge lasted for a few months, ultimately the Censor Board was held to be infringing on the fundamental right of freedom of expression granted by the Constitution. This is how the play got a certificate for performance. The side benefit was that the Censor Board had to amend its rules to make them more democratic.

Tendulkar's Gidhade which came later, thus had the advantage of appeal when it predictably ran into censor trouble. Once again the problem was the obscenities that the characters used in their day to day fights. Tendulkar had called his play Vultures because that is what his characters were. They were money grabbers, men and women for whom human relationships, love, kinship were nothing against material greed. Shreeram Lagoo directed the play with Satyadev Dubey as producer.

This play also came back from the censors with multiple cuts, mostly of obscenities. Lagoo and Dubey called a meeting of the cast and crew. They saw only two alternatives—to drop the play altogether or do it as it was despite the censor’s directive. To do it with the cuts suggested by them was out of the question. “What will happen?” asked Lagoo. “Will they put us in jail for ignoring their recommendations? So be it. I am prepared to go to jail. If you too are, we will simply go ahead with our rehearsals and shows.”

Rehearsals went on and then  shows. It was not expected that the play would do more than five shows anyway. As it happened, it became something of a hit and the censors sat up and took notice. The producer was asked to meet the censors to argue his case. Lagoo and Dubey went. They argued. Lagoo’s argument was succinct. “The play is about vultures, not sparrows.” Members of the censor board came to see the play. One of them later said that the eoman next to him put her head down in embarrassment every time an obscenity was uttered on stage. In the next meeting, when this was brought up, Lagoo asked why the member had been watching the woman instead of the play.

Finally the chairman who had the last word saw the play and approved it without one objection. That was against the red blood stain that was being shown on the sari of the character named Manik after her brother kicks her and she aborts her baby. The Chairman’s appeal was that the woman should not pass front stage on her way out so the stain doesn’t become obvious to the audience. Also that it need not be so red. Dubey worked around this suggestion by making the stain on Manik’s sari blue. The advertisement for the play said, “Please see the blue stain on Manik’s sari as red.”

Although I translated Elkunchwar’s Vasanakand in a hurry because the director and producer expected censor trouble (the play was about an incestuous relationship but had no obscenities), they did not have to go to court as far as I remember.  

From the seventies onward the theatre community has grown to fear the street censor more than the State censor. Any organisation gives itself the permission to gate crash a play and protest against its staging despite its having been cleared by the State censor. The protests against Tendulkar's Ghashiram Kotwal erupted on the street. The brahmins of Pune saw it as an anti-brahmin play. The Shiv Sena saw it as a distortion of history, that maligned the venerated figure of the Peshwa Chancellor Nana Phadnavis. There was a lot of cloak-and-dagger drama when the play was invited to Berlin. But the director, cast and crew stuck it out. Ghashiram Kotwal has gone down in history as a modern classic.
It is possible to stand up to this unconstitutional authority; but not all theatre practitioners care enough about their own freedom to do so. This was proved when a far right organisation held a violent protest in the auditorium and stopped the show of a play called Maruti ani champagne. They objected to the monkey god Maruti's name being linked to liquor. In the play, Maruti was not the god at all. It was the nickname of one of the characters. Unwilling to hold out for the principle of the thing, the producer changed the nickname itself to Makad (monkey) and called the play Makadachya Hati Champagne.(Champagne in a monkey’s hand.) The play went on to becomes a hit.

A similar group threatened to disrupt a show of Nadira Babbar's Pencil se brush tak because it was based on the life of M. F. Husain. However, in this case, Sanjna Kapoor who managed Prithvi Theatre where the show was to be staged, stood firmly against the protesting group and called the police in. The show went on as planned.

Despite permission granted by censors, managements of theatres are also known not to allow the staging of plays that the moral brigades have protested against. Young playwright Manaswini's play Cigarettes has been banned from certain auditoria. The National Centre for the Performing Arts has not allowed the feminist play The Vagina Monologues to be performed in its auditoria.

 By and large, the moral police today react less to alleged obscenity than offences against gods and goddesses. Yadakadachit, a play that had already had hundreds of shows aroused mob fury two years ago because a group suddenly objected to its irreverent treatment of characters and stories from the Mahabharat. To do so is an endearing feature of our folk plays and this one takes its form from them. A special show of the play was held for Bal Thackeray. He decided there was nothing wrong with it and that is how it continued to be performed.
Recently,the Censor Board refused to pass Premanand Gajvi’s play Chhavani, calling it "unconstitutional". The play questioned social inequality in the country using the Naxalite movement as its context. They sat on his script for a year-and-a-half without explaining what was 'unconstitutional' about it. Finally, he got permission to stage the play.In 2009, when Gajvee produced Gandhi-Ambedkar, where he sought to present the differences over caste between the two leaders, the censor board suggested 60 cuts. Today, the chairman of the Censor Board Arun Nalawade has this to say about his work as a censor.
"We are not going to issue certificates to plays which show problems faced by the people. People want to watch only good things. Playwrights must understand that. The Board currently has a dozen scripts on the recent incidents of assaults on Dalits by cow vigilantes.”
Last September I and a few other theatre people received the following mail from Amol Palekar: “I have filed a writ in the Mumbai High Court which will come up on board around 10th Sept. The gist is as under -
‘It is only in Maharashtra and Gujarat that play-scripts have to undergo pre-censorship since they require certification. In 2013, Chennai, the only other State that required this kind of certification, struck down that rule through its high court. If the same content of a play is read either on stage or on radio as a radio play, or shot as a tele-drama and shown on TV or internet, or published as a book, it does not need any certification. This is not only discriminatory but has worked as a weapon to harass playwrights and producers. A majority of writers accept cuts. Those few who refuse, have had to go to the court. Vasanakand, Gidhade, Avadhya, Sakharam Binder, Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy, Khairlanji and some plays which have fought their own respective battles and won against the unreasonable censorship.
However no one after 1970 has taken up the constitutional issues that are at the bottom of this whole procedure. I am challenging those. It is high time that these issues are thrashed out, if need be even at the Supreme Court level. The political atmosphere is against this kind of "liberal cry" which is immediately equated with libertarianism and anarchy. But I am going to go ahead.”

The hearings are still going on.

Published On : 04-03-2017