'Worldover, dictatorships start by targeting art'

'Worldover, dictatorships start by targeting art'

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan reminds you that hardline political leaderships the world over have tried to silence non-conformist artists and filmmakers. He has his own story to add.

Sanal Kumar's Malayalam film S Durga follows a man and a woma on the run; in the night, on roads ruled by men who are, at once, protectors and abusers. The filmmaker says he has tried to explore this dichotomy - absolute reverence for the goddess, against a 'need' to own and oppress the woman on the street. The film won international accolades, including the Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival, Rotterdam. But back home, S Durga and the Marathi film Nude were dropped from the Indian Panorama section of the ongoing International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa.

The Kerala High Court, allowing a writ petition filed by Sanal Kumar, directed the Information and Broadcasting ministry and the Directorate of Film Festivals to screen the film at IFFI. Festival Director Sunit Tandon has since requested Sanal Kumar to submit the censored version of the film.

Sanal Kumar counters outrage over the 'Durga' in his film's title, and also questions the film industry's silence on the outrage. But he maintains that the issue is not just about a film anymore. He spoke to DH's R Krishnakumar before Tandon's request. Excerpts:

Even after the HC directive to include S Durga in the IFFI schedule, there's no official word on the screening.

There's no information, yet. This is not only about curbs on artistic freedom anymore this is about the violation of constitutional freedoms, this is about standing up to people who don't value those freedoms. When we view this as a simple issue of a film being denied a screening at a festival, we miss the bigger picture. This is how dictatorships emerge.

You see the controversy around the film as a statement on the political dispensation.

If you look at authoritarian regimes across the world, they all started out by targeting art. That's the pattern. Artists who ask uncomfortable questions are harassed and even branded as traitors. Look at Iranian filmmakers, look at how Russia treated (Andrei) Tarkovsky. The situation is scarier because dictatorships now also emerge from a democratic process. Now, they come with the electorate's backing.

In terms of scale and sensibilities, Padmavati appears very different from S Durga or Nude. What's the one thing you find as common to controversies around these films?

The undercurrents that steer these controversies are the same. The opposition to Padmavati started as small protest groups. The noise against the film grew louder and these are noises that connect with people who run the present government. It's about a certain kind of ideology that these forces endorse and it gets the backing of the government. We know how the government responded to lynching and violence over cow slaughter. The issue is larger than art or films.

You were ready to change your film's original title to ensure that it reaches an audience.

Yes, my priority was to take the film to the people. S Durga is not about gods or goddesses. The outrage over the film is ridiculous. It's like burning a book over its cover. I'm trying everything I can to get a commercial release for the film but after seeing how things have panned out, I really don't know.

You speak about the silence that followed the IFFI decision to not screen the film. You say the price of this silence will be huge. Who are you pointing at?

The silence is alarming. I would say it's even more disturbing than the ministry's action. But I don't want to point fingers; any failure to stand up to such curbs on artistic expression is collective.

There were protests against the ministry's decision from Marathi filmmakers but nothing significant from elsewhere, even from the Malayalam film industry.

There could be various reasons. Some of them could be worried about their dissent costing them awards or other benefits from the government. There could be fear that taking a stand against the government could expose their films to fringe elements. It's disappointing to note that the industry doesn't see the need to respond. Equally disappointing is the silence of our cultural icons.

The possibility of another backlash, more protests - would that play in your mind when you decide on the content of your films in the future?

Definitely. There will be opposition to the kind of themes I like to handle. I'm aware of the possibilities, but I'm prepared.

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