Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Good Censorship

It is generally agreed upon that censorship is one of the biggest impediments to the "progress", as it were, of mankind. It hinders the fundamental right to free expression, and is one of the most favourite weapons of tyrants and oppressive regimes throughout history, employed to subjugate, suppress and gag effectively all kinds of deviant behaviour, thought or speech. Sometimes though, in certain particular cases, censorship proves to have unexpectedly positive side-effects. P.G.Wodehouse points out, for example, that one of the best ways to ensure that a book is a best-seller is to publicly condemn or ban it. To cite a somewhat flippant example, the issue of The Quibbler in which Harry Potter's exclusive interview was published became a raging best-seller especially as it had been expressly banned by the head-mistress Dolores Umbridge. One perhaps wouldn't go so far as to say precisely the same about Joshy Joseph's documentary, A Day From A Hangman's Life, an otherwise insipid and unremarkable film that would normally not have created much of an impact at any level whatsoever. The film didn't really prove to be a huge money-spinner, but the controversy surrounding it after it was abruptly pulled out of Nandan on the Chief Minister's orders certainly seems to have given it a new lease of life almost, by focussing public interest on an unlikely subject. It certainly explains why there was a full house when it was being screened at the K..P.Basu Memorial Hall on 6th February. I was pretty disappointed with the film; for me, and I suspect, for several others as well, the real interest lay in knowing that it had provoked the authorities enough for them to clamp down on any further screenings of it in Nandan.

A Day From A Hangman's Life focusses on Nata Mallick, the hangman who ultimately carried out the task of overseeing the final moments of Dhananjoy Chatterjee's life. Chatterjee, as is well known, was sentenced to death on charges of raping and murdering Hetal Parekh, a schoolgirl. The film, predictably, starts off with showing a whole slew of newspaper clippings about the crime, the death sentence, the various appeals against it, the grisly details of and speculations about the execution in a country which was about to witness a hanging after several years, and last but by no means the least, about Nata himself. The hangman occupied a huge space in the collective public imagination, being portrayed in a variety of ways -- from being a god-fearing person simply going about his job, to being a bloodthirsty monster almost, eagerly anticipating Dhananjoy's death at his hands. Joshy Joseph's film is basically an extended interview with Nata, going through all the phases. In the beginning, he is welcomed by Nata himself into his home. Towards the end, however, the hangman gets increasingly resentful about the fact that Joseph tries to get more footage of him than he approves of. His chief grouse is that he's not making any money, although he is the 'hero' in this documentary. Throughout, the audience is shown several facets of Nata the showman, who shamelessly plays to the gallery, milking his fifteen moments of fame for all he is worth. It is a film also partially about relentless media intrusion. In no way, however, does this documentary deserve even a fraction of the huge publicity it has garnered, if we are to consider it in terms of cinematic excellence alone. Even the one semi-original touch in the docu-drama, the metaphor of the cat, is stretched thin by being over-used. A Day From A Hangman's Life, then, becomes a classic example of (state) censorship providing a huge boost to an otherwise tame and mediocre offering.

Speculation over Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's knee-jerk reaction on viewing the film's posters at Nandan provided a more fruitful way of discussing the whole issue of censorship connected with the film. Reports suggest that our Hon'ble CM did not even watch the film, but banned it outright. My friend and I derived much amusement from the thought that getting him to actually watch the film would probably result in the lifting of the ban on it. The notable thing in this case, of course, is that the official reason for the film being pulled out of Nandan was insufficient ticket sales, and not the CM's disapproval.

Those of us who had expected the discussion that followed the screening at K.P.Basu to throw up any interesting (or even relevant) issues dealing with the reasons and methods behind censorship were sadly disappointed. Taslima Nasreen, one of the three panelists, failed to turn up. Sujato Bhadro, the first speaker, made a few relevant points as he recounted his own experience in having his documentary on Dhananjoy not being granted a censor board certificate. However, his address was mostly filled with obvious statements about the very basic premise that such a phenomenon as censorship actually does exist and that governments are mostly responsible for it. As students of censorship, we had gone to the talk knowing this very well, so for us at least, the discussion had little or no value. Moreover, statements like, " The Government usually almost never tells the truth, but the opposition always does so." smacked of being excessively simplistic and laughable. Vidyarthi Chatterjee, who spoke next, did not even try to veer close to the issue of censorship. He bypassed the topic altogether and proceeded to read out a long, bland essay about Joseph's film, lambasting Nata in the process. All in all, the most lively and entertaining bit in the whole discussion came towards the end, when both the speakers were engaged in a verbal duel with a certain JUDEean member in the audience, not realising that she was essentially agreeing with the very obvious points they'd made but was also asking a different question of her own!


Somnath said...

As far as the discussion was concerned, I think that the most idiotic comment of the lot was Mr. Bhadro's iteration that Dhananjoy Chatterjee was innocent - if my memory serves me right, he claimed to have "concrete proof" that the man was innocent! What did that have to do with the discussion on censorship?

Braveheart said...

Very good write-up. I narrowly missing viewing the documentary at the Pune Intl Film Fest and resented it badly as I was taken in by the same hype around it. You made me feel better! However, Adoor Gopalakrishnan's latest film released in 2003 also revolves around the life of a hangman and the conflicts inside him. Do watch it if it interests you.

-- Akshaya