Almost a year ago the feature film Unfreedom was banned by authorities with reasons that the film would cause “Communal Violence” and arouse “Unnatural Passion” among audience. The début Director and Writer, Raj Amit Kumar, is one of the few new Indian film-makers who refuse to make cuts and compromise the creative integrity of his film. Instead, appreciating the five years of hard work that he and many other artists had put into the film should not be in vain, he continued to seek out other outlets to reach out to audience with his film.
In India, before releasing publicly a film is submitted to the Censor Board of Film Certification. This Statutory body makes the decision as to which scenes should be cut in order to allow the film to be granted a Category of Censor Certificate. If a film-maker does not agree to the proposed cuts then their film may not get a Certificate and it is prohibited from public viewing in any commercial spaces. In case the film-maker wants to oppose the proposed cuts, he/she may appeal to Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) against the decision of The Censor Board. The FCAT then, makes an independent decision about the release of the film. In case of Unfreedom, FCAT banned the film with reasons that the film would cause “Communal Violence” and arouse “Unnatural Passion” among audience.
Unfreedom is a film that sparks conversations and draws attention to issues. Making the cuts that the authorities were requiring would have taken away the core concepts in the film. Instead of letting the Indian authorities sterilize the film or stop the film from reaching one of the intended audiences, Mr. Kumar and his team sought out alternative venues like Educational Institutions, Art Galleries, Film Societies and Clubs, Art Studios, Cafes, NGOs, Reading Clubs, and private residences of artists for exhibition of the film. These spaces gave the film-maker an opportunity to share his film in intimate and interactive environments.
Audiences ranging in size from 15 to 400 (average of 35 to 40 per screening) were not only able to see the film but often got the chance to ask the Director about the film and the film-making process through Skype Q&A sessions held in the venue just after the screening.
But it wasn’t an easy venture for the team to take a film that has been banned to reach a 100 screenings. For two months the team, spearheaded by Ajay Mohan, (Asst. Dir.) and Manish Chougule(Asst. Dir.) researched to find target venues and make contact with the decision makers at institutions and organizations. Many of these people were not willing to take a chance on a banned film. Some were protecting their organization or venue from possible political enforcement and others were not interested in doing a screening with no promise of some financial payoff. But slowly, the Unfreedom team with an online presence gathered a network of indie film supporters
The first twenty five venues were a tedious struggle. Many organization and venue owners were sceptical due to the lack of a censor certificate and feared some level of harm might come to their business through local politics. Some booked but cancelled or postponed, but the venues that agreed to host these private screenings and followed through found that their audiences actually appreciated the opportunity to see a film that the Censor Board deemed not worthy of viewing.
The more venues that screened Unfreedom, the more word of mouth references were passed along and the more other venues were willing to listen and join in. It took almost eight months to get the first fifty screenings across the country. But the next fifty screenings only took three and a half months to achieve. A network had been built by making thousands of phone calls, sending emails, networking with organizations and institution leaders and organizing remote private screenings with the help of volunteers, students and NGOs.
During the Censor Board review process in 2014, Unfreedom was screened at the prestigious International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). Other than IFFK, it has been showcased at ten other international film festivals globally. The film was released in The U.S.A on 29th May 2015 in ten cities and ran across theatres for two weeks.
The predictions from authorities what public would do in the face of a film like Unfreedom was completely wrong. The audiences didn’t revolt or riot, in fact, they helped spread the word about the film. But not everyone loved the film or agreed with it. It did get mixed reviews. Even the audience members that did not agree with the film understood the value of making their own choice of seeing a film. One of the key elements in the screenings was the interaction with the Director after viewing. Giving the audience a chance to discuss about the things that affected them the most and ask the source why he made the choices he made in the film.
The Censor Board is not only acting as a morality barrier for the public but their censorship is an effective means of controlling films through restricting film-makers from recouping funds put into making a film. And so, can be an effective deterrent for other film-makers from stepping outside of the Censor Board’s acceptable norms. It has been for long now that the Censor Board has been curtailing the freedom of expression and freedom of choice for film-makers and audience. There is sufficient outrage among film-makers about the issue. Taking a banned film to 100 venues is a significant step in independent Indian Cinema. The film-maker chose to move beyond the limitations of the situation by reaching out to audience and exhibiting the film at 100 private screenings across India.