Film frustration

A curious incident struck Nepali cinemas on 22 January. After barely a few days on screens, the government of Nepal pulled the Bollywood movie Chandni Chowk to China from theatres, purportedly for offending the Nepali public by briefly suggesting that India was the land of the Sakyamuni Buddha's birth. The claim was contained in dramatic narration studded within a cinematic blizzard of depictions of Delhi a scarce minute into the movie. Arguably, it might have been employed in order to juxtapose India with China, the eponymous destination of the movie. The latter is, after all, a land that took to Buddhism more strongly, even to the point of sending emissaries to reclaim the relics of the Buddha that had gone neglected in the Subcontinent. Bollywood, with its casually jingoistic tendencies, often plays up India's religious diversity, a satisfied self-congratulation to its supposed secular identity. In the Nepali context, however, given that the historical Buddha was born in what is today Nepal, it hit against a countervailing nationalistic sentiment: there, the reference is another unforgivable slight by a dismissive and presumptuous neighbour. Indeed, today much of the skittishness on the part of the overseers of the Nepali film industry has less to do with content than with nationalism, particularly vis-à-vis India – a potent echo of what is taking place in the larger political landscape.

The remarkable thing is that the offending piece of narration – a mere snippet, really – had already been struck from the movie by its Nepali distributor on the instructions of the country's Censor Board. Apparently, the protests that it garnered in Nepal stemmed from elsewhere. It is possible that the bootleg version that had hit the market was to blame; or, as is often seen in the Southasian context, perhaps it was denounced without actually having been watched. The Nepal Film Development Board (FDB), on the recommendation of which the government ordered the movie to be pulled, was at the time stretched between two difficult choices. On the one hand, the swift action could be read as unnecessary, considering that the offending clip had already been removed by the Censor Board, a parallel agency. On the other hand, the bruised nationalist ego of the public had resulted in acts of violence on claims even slimmer than the dim-witted and somewhat innocent film at the centre of the sudden brouhaha.

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Himal Southasian