Sia, lying in bed, draws a bedsheet up to her neck and masturbates. Then, she turns off the light and falls asleep. Sia takes a photograph of a soaked sanitary napkin (red, not blue dye), and uploads it on her Facebook wall. At a demonstration where slogans like “My body, my right” and “Menstrual blood is not impure” are being shouted, Sia wears a sheet wrapped around her, with the image of a vagina printed on it.
Sia is as real as she is fictional. She is a character from Jayan Cherian’s film, Ka Bodyscapes, now effectively banned by the Central Board of Film Certification, which refused to provide the film a certificate last month.
This refusal to certify Cherian’s 2015 Malayalam film comes soon after the board’s denial of certification to Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha. Both films deal with the zeitgeist of our times: sexuality, or, rather, sexuality seen from a non-heteronormative lens, which celebrates female sexual desire, validates lesbian, gay, bisexual identities, and unquestioningly accepts an individual’s right to self-determination.
New York-based Cherian has been fighting a losing battle against the CBFC for over a year now. In April, the examining committee of the board denied certification; two months later, a revising committee echoed the verdict. Cherian moved court, and in December, a two-judge bench of the Kerala high court ordered the CBFC to view the film again within three months, and instead of refusing to give it a certificate, suggest portions to delete, or words to mute—in other words, engage in a dialogue with the film-maker. The CBFC refused certification once again.
A letter dated 28 February was as condemnatory of the film as the earlier revising committee had been. It voiced a new concern—“the film is glorifying the subject of gay and homosexual relationship (sic), nudity accentuating vital parts of male body (in paintings) in closed shots in the whole movie (sic).… The film contains posters depicting homosexuality throughout the movie and derogatory remarks against women.”
“The fact that the board thinks this film denigrates women is absurd,” says Cherian, from New York. He points out that many scenes in the film are based on real incidents. For instance, Sia uploads the photo of a napkin on a social media platform as a response to an incident at her workplace, where a napkin found in the bathroom prompts the management to strip-search women workers to find out who is menstruating.
But this actually happened to 45 women workers of a private firm in Kochi in December 2014. In response, activists in Kerala launched a campaign, Red Alert: You’ve Got A Napkin, a campaign which urged people to send sanitary napkins to the managing director of the firm where the incident occurred—the cover picture of their Facebook page was a sanitary pad.
In January, the CBFC’s examining committee refused to give a certificate to Lipstick Under My Burkha, which premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year. The letter sent to Prakash Jha Productions, which has produced Shrivastava’s film, stated: “The film is lady oriended (sic), their fantasy above life. There are contanious (sic) sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch (sic) about one particular section of society.”
Some of the women in the film are Muslim, and undoubtedly the board was trying to be sensitive to the community, but in doing so, it has only shown tolerance towards the orthodoxies surrounding women that are prevalent in all religions.
The film, which won the Audience Award at the recent Glasgow Film Festival, is about four women from small-town India, and delves into their desire for freedom—sexual, emotional, social. Judging by its trailer, it is a film that shows desire without judgement, as something that is real and not caricaturized. Contrast this with the sort of imagery portrayed in item songs, or sexual comedies—such as the 2013 film Grand Masti—and the contradiction in the depiction of women’s bodies, and sexualities, becomes immediately apparent.
According to film-maker Leena Yadav, this has to do with the fact that while the CBFC is governed by guidelines, such as ensuring that “human sensibilities are not offended by vulgarity, obscenity or depravity”, these are ultimately subjective decisions. “Obscenity is very subjective and even though there are guidelines, they are open to interpretation by the present committee. What is obscene to me may not be obscene to you. Something which is artistic to me may be offensive to your sensibility. That is why dialogue is very important. And both parties should be open to a different point of view.”
Yadav’s 2015 film Parched, about three women in rural Rajasthan, also depicted their fight for social, sexual and economic freedom, and received an “A” certificate. After the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was released in Indian theatres in 2016 with a few cuss words muted, the blurring of frontal nudity in one scene, and no cuts.
This, says Yadav, was possible because she was able to have a constructive dialogue with the board—similar to what the Kerala high court has asked the CBFC to have with Cherian.
Ka Bodyscapes is the story of a gay painter, Haris, his lover, a devout man, and their friend Sia, a white-collar worker in a factory, and a feminist. Haris faces right-wing censure for his work, paintings that depict the male body. The film shows posters challenging Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes consensual adult same-sex intercourse, in the film’s rather obvious way of laying down its politics surrounding its gay protagonist, Haris. In the final scene, Haris leaves a canvas on a beach—in it, we see his muse and lover flying over a burning city, carrying books. The image is a metaphor drawn from our rich and imaginative mythology. According to the CBFC, the film-maker had shown Lord Hanuman “in poor light as Gay”, and it cites this as one of its many reasons to refuse certification.
“It’s ironic,” says Cherian. “I am undergoing the same battle I’ve shown my protagonist face.”
Long battle ahead for first Gujarati LGBT-themed film
Though Meghdhanushya: The Colour Of Life (2013) was given an “A” certificate by the certification board, it ran into trouble with the state government. Gujarat grants entertainment tax exemption to all Gujarati colour films, except those that depict blind faith, sati, dowry and other social evils and those which are against national unity.
When the film-maker, Kirankumar Devmani, applied for exemption, the commissioner of entertainment tax asked that the makers first mute words such as “homosexual” and “gay” and delete English subtitles of the words. The film shows the trauma of a boy coming to terms with his sexuality, and weaves in comments by gay rights activist Sylvester Merchant and Manvendrasingh Gohil, a descendant of the royal family of the erstwhile princely state of Rajpipla. The matter went to the Gujarat high court, which ruled in favour of the film-maker: “Merely because the subject of the film is thought-provoking, (and) forces the viewer to come out of the comfort zone and face the subject, which is often sought to be swept under the carpet, would not mean that the film is either controversial or objectionable.” The Supreme Court, however, stayed the high court order after the state appealed in 2014. The matter is pending.