Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Critics & censors: cut, cut, chop, chop

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Column in Business Standard, June 17, 2016

The film world is cock-a-hoop since June 13 when the Bombay High Court cut down the 89 cuts to one – of the hero urinating, possibly in deference to Swachch Bharat – and an “A” certificate

“When critics get together they talk about spatial relationships,” said Pablo Picasso, “but when painters get together they talk about turpentine.” Conversely, when Indian filmmakers get together these days they mainly talk of Pahlaj Nihalani, the menacing chief of the censor board.

Both have to do with the power of a hallowed few to arbitrate on what the public should see. It’s the work of critics and censors to cut, cut, chop, chop. Their big bites can hurt politically. Denunciations in the world of art and film can reach a tipping point when criticism, however mindless, spills into the minefield of censorship.

A bristling row between British and Indian art critics over the five-month retrospective of the late Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar that opened at the Tate Modern on June 1, however, is a diluted brand of turpentine compared to the bruising battle over Udta Punjab, a film on devastating drug abuse in Punjab which the censor-in-chief thought worthy of 89 cuts, mostly ridiculous. With Punjab elections due next year and the drug habit a burning issue in the state, Mr Nihalani’s mauling of the movie incited a bitter political fallout and tough legal action.

Mr Nihalani is one of the Narendra Modi government’s more embarrassing appointees to public office. A feature film producer of negligible merit – and fanatical Modi bhakt with adoring videos like Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi to his credit -he’s been running amok like a bull in a china shop and acquired Goebbelsian airs. The film world is cock-a-hoop since June 13 when the Bombay High Court cut down the 89 cuts to one – of the hero urinating, possibly in deference to Swachch Bharat – and an “A” certificate. The bench ticked off the censor board to stop behaving like a “grandmother” and let filmmakers get on with their job of reflecting some bitter home truths. The film’s co-producer Anurag Kashyap who was denouncing Mr Nihalani as a “dictator…operating out of North Korea” is now probably popping champagne at the victory of free expression in India.


A social media war has erupted with the estimable art critic Geeta Kapur in The Wire damning Mr Jones – “a provincial Englishman” whose language is “vicious” and “vulgar”. She accuses Mr Jones of a mindset that’s not just sneakily conservative but colonialist.

What, I wonder, would Bhupen Khakhar, who died in 2003, and whom I knew reasonably well, made of this farrago of bittersweet tidings? I imagine he would have been pleased, dismayed but – for his was an insight sharpened by deeply-observed irony – vastly amused. He was a small-built friendly gnome of a man whose thick lenses and thatch of white hair were at odds with his cherubic face. Trained as a chartered accountant, followed by years of book keeping, had made him acutely myopic. But Khakhar’s life, like his art, was full of surprises. He took to painting full-time under the influence of Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh in Baroda where he lived quietly with his elderly male partner. He neither hid nor flaunted his homosexuality though he explored it in quixotic vein; his vivid narratives are often unsettling for laying bare the peculiarly Indian dividing line between public and private lives. The Tate show takes its name from a canvas titled “You Can’t Please All”: a naked man is shown leaning on a balcony watching street life below where the goings-on with a donkey allude to a popular Aesop’s Fable. Khakhar also wrote prolifically in Gujarati. A short story called Phoren Soap is a masterpiece of comic brevity.

Bhupen Khakar

“Man Without A Face”, Bhupen Khakhar, 1996 

At his last show in Delhi in 1996 I impulsively bought a water colour by him, a head and shoulders portrait drawn in bold lines. It was around Holi, and the featureless figure, artfully splattered with yellow daubs, delighted me. I asked Khakhar if it had a title, like many of his artworks. He peered at me quizzically through his glasses, and said, “Call it ‘Man Without A Face’.” He wasn’t the type to talk of “spatial relationships”.

In art, as in films, it’s best to go by what the maker means to say.


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