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.

Compounding the issue, it was scarcely a week after the Chandni Chowk incident that the then-Maoist-led government issued a gazette notification revising Nepal's Regulation on Film. Much of this dealt with specifically foreign films and filmmakers: all promotional materials for foreign films now had to be submitted to the censors, in addition to rather meticulous information about the script and biographies of those chiefly involved; new restrictions were placed on foreign filmmakers working in Nepal, while foreigners were wholly excluded from owning theatres. The new regulations even forbade the screening of a foreign film in the same hall as a Nepali one, in an attempt to extract taxes on the former, as domestic films are exempt from additional tariffs. While the proximity of the banning of Chandni Chowk and the unveiling of the new regulations may be largely coincidental (FDB officials insist that the amendments were being worked on for some time), the former casts the latter in an ominous light.

Sense and censurability
The FDB has long been a source of both promise and frustration to the various constituents of the film community in Nepal. Made up of three political appointees by the standing government and three representatives from various ministries, the Board essentially has a regulatory function and is responsible for licensing films for exhibition. But as an advisory body that shapes policy, it has – as the Chandni Chowk incident demonstrates – the unenviable and impossible task of balancing the competing interests of the public, the combative and fractured Nepali film community, business interest and the government. Being drawn from vocal film-industry-related organisations and with their short, two-year stints, the Board positions have the appearance of musical chairs, with one office-bearer regularly replaced by a rival or critic. In fact, the aborted tenure of the Maoist-appointed Ganesh Bhandari was in some ways a break from the past, leading to a more public and transparent Board that sought to project itself as responsive and rational, conducting numerous press conferences and professionally courting reporters.

It is with a view of the history of events and debates going back years that the new amendments begin to attain some justification. The poorly worded clause that barred a foreign film from being screened in the same hall as a Nepali film was a continuation of an earlier debate as to how to extract taxes on receipts of foreign film despite the fact that domestic films have been exempt from such tariffs. The point on submitting promotional materials to the Board recalls the kerfuffle (raised by the Maoist member of that Board in 2007) over Ram Gopal Varma's Ki Aag purportedly obscene dance scene featured in its promotional posters. The last criticised set of amendments could generally be considered in light over the antagonism between Bollywood movies that have a considerable (perhaps majority) market share and the young Nepali industry, which has a faithful following. The recent two-month Bollywood strike was an inconclusive test for the Nepali film industry and the criticism directed to exhibitors over screens. It proved to be a profitable time for Nepali films, and yet many theatres that screened Bollywood films were slow to adjust, weathering the dry season stoically.

Eventually, the focal point for criticism of the new Maoist regulations became a coalition of national and international free-speech groups, which began to loudly declaim the moves as censorship. But in fact, it remains unclear as to exactly how the new regulations will adversely affect the freedom of expression, as its critics purport. After all, film exhibitors are far more attracted to fare that offers entertainment, and the Nepali and Indian film industries are both happy to provide such content. Moreover, the pattern of censorship of foreign films in Nepal has been consistently innocuous and predictable. The Nepali viewer was spared the romp in the stables between Saif Ali Khan and Bipasha Basu in Race, while the censors gave no attention to the violent and graphic Watchmen, following a pattern familiar to censors for decades. The new laws in no way drastically change the content of the films that enter the cinema, which rarely make nuanced political statements or criticism anyway. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to name a single film that has been negatively affected, much less prohibited, by the new amendments.

While commercial cinema remains largely unmoved by Nepal's new laws, licensing regulations most profoundly affect independent filmmakers. It is with this category of media workers that the traditional conceptualisation of the FDB becomes increasingly irrelevant, and relations increasingly cumbersome. For independent filmmakers, seeking licensing is generally an after-the-fact affair, only to take place after the possibility materialises that the work is to be carried by exhibitors – a slim chance at best. The current trend will only intensify the antagonism between the FDB, which naturally leans towards regulation, and filmmakers who view their work as independent and ungovernable. To the latter, seeking permission might make as much sense as writers having to register their pens.

In the FDB's various meetings with independent artists, the latter have consistently suggested replacing outright censorship with a comprehensive international rating system. It is a sensible suggestion, and one that sidesteps many of the problems surrounding censorship. However, to treat the public with such respect requires a challenging change in the official mindset. Moreover, it edges against the idea of national sovereignty, the notion that other countries can decide what is appropriate for Nepal's population. Indeed, as has been seen, the nationalistic sentiment of the people of Nepal is one of the explicit considerations of the Censor Board. Regardless, in light of the considerable visibility of independent artists in the international festival circuit, a degree of flexibility is required from the Board. Such an understanding already exists in other countries, where traditional certification is sidestepped altogether in favour of recognising artistic merit to support its cinematic ambassadors.

Even if changes were made by the FDB, however, the distance between the body's recommendations and implementation is a lengthy one. Former appointees of the Board have voiced their frustration over the body's relationship with ministries, which have in the past been quick to deny funds. Developing an independent FDB that is a meaningful and active advocate for positive policy requires extricating the organisation from direct government involvement.

Extending the tenure of members past the paltry two-year mark, along with abandoning the ministerial representatives that make up half the board, might produce a degree of independence.

Meanwhile, the criticisms by members of the civil society beg the question of the fundamental distrust that was directed towards the Maoist government. However, as long as the practice of political appointees continues, any Film Development Board, or any other advisory bodies to the government for that matter, will be vulnerable to criticism. Indeed, if anything, following the Maoist resignation from government in early May, the new government's choice for FDB chairperson has received more-vociferous attacks from members of the film community (if not from civil society) as a 'political' appointee than his predecessors experienced, as evidenced by his lack of any film background. For all the talk of coalition- and consensus-building in Nepal, the issue of regulation of film remains another arena in which intractable differences of ideology and interests refuse to resolve themselves.

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Himal Southasian