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"Sins" Seen and Unseen


The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, Feb. 21, 2005

Photo: Shabd

So you thought only the Shiv Sena was at it - attacking movie halls, pulling down film posters and generally proving to the world how intolerant they were of freedom of expression? The thought police are gaining strength with more and more religion-inspired outfits joining the war against a filmmaker's right to tell the story that he wants to.

The latest in the line of fire are two films - veteran writer-director Vinod Pande's unreleased Sins and Leena Yadav's released-and-dumped Shabd. Neither might be a priceless piece of cinema that is worth fighting for, but that gives nobody, least of all small organisations claiming to be representing entire communities, the right to prevent these films from being seen by people who want to.

Yes, these organisations have every right to protest and use every available democratic method to get their point across but asking the Central Board of Film Censors [C.B.F.C.] to stall a film cannot be a solution. Shabd has drawn the ire of some Sikhs for using the expression 'Sardar' as a code word meaning a joke.

That's as stale as it is sick. The film's producer, Rangita Nandy has of course taken cognizance of the protests and asserted that the intention wasn't to denigrate any community. I agree that it is politically incorrect, if not bad taste, to treat Sardars as jokes. But Shabd is too insignificant a film to make any dent in the reputation of one of India's most enterprising communities.

Sins might not be such a simple open and shut case, though. It indeed has the looks of a deliberately provocative film, narrating as it does the tale of a Catholic cleric who has a sexual relationship with a woman half his age. The film reportedly has more graphic sexual content than what one usually encounters in a Mumbai film and the depiction of a morally corruptible Christian priest might just give religious fanatics some ammunition against a minority community that can do without such hostile attention.

But surely the Catholic faith has the resilience to be able to withstand the attack that Vinod Pande's film purportedly launches on it. What the all-India Catholic Union should remember is that Sins is the story of only one stray priest, not of the Catholic clergy as a whole.

If filmmakers are subjected to scrutiny for every single story they tell, every single character they deal with, and every single moment that they choose to put the screen, life would be really difficult for anybody who wants to make a film on a controversial theme.

Some years ago, Shiv Sainiks were out on the streets to disrupt the screening of Deepa Mehta's Fire, which depicted a lesbian relationship involving a character called Sita. Some months ago, an Islamic organization objected to a song in M.F. Hussain's Meenaxi: A Tale of 3 Cities. The more filmmakers are compelled to bow to such pressures the more likely it is that this kind of an extra-constitutional, fascist censorship mechanism will increasingly take root in this country.

I am no fan of films like Sins, but it has the right to a place in the Sun as much as any other film. I might disagree with what the film is trying to say, but I cannot impose my will on the rest of the country even though I might have at my disposal an organization that is primed to do my bidding. If a generally lenient Catholic body can do this, one shudders to think what the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena will unleash if a Mumbai filmmaker were to weave a film around the sex scandal that has rocked a Hindu sect in Gujarat.

Even if we don't accept Pande's assertion that his film is only fiction and is not aimed against any religion, we would do well to remember that Sins isn't the first 'anti-Catholic' film that has ever been made. Nor is it likely to be the last. But Christianity will survive long after these films are forgotten.

In 1982, Frank Perry made a period film titled Monsignor, which had a priest (Christopher Reeve) seducing a nun (Genevieve Bujold), killing Germans in World War II and pushing the Church into shady deals. Critics panned the film and it did not last very long in the theatres.

In 1994, British filmmaker Antonia Bird directed the well-acted and provocative Priest, which was about a straight-laced Roman Catholic priest who is unable to keep his vow of celibacy. He has a relationship with another man even as he is called upon to help a 14-year-old girl sexually abused by her father.

While the Catholic League was up in arms against the film, it could not stop its circulation. Priest suggested that men of the cloth could fall prey to temptation as they were human beings, not demigods. But it certainly did not present its central character as a neurotic ogre. One wonders if Sins can strike such a fine balance.

More recently, in 2002 to be precise, one of Mexico's finest filmmakers, Carlos Carrera, made El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro), about a newly-ordained priest torn between the divine and the carnal. Again, it drew strong protests from Catholics, who went to the extent of calling it a 'Jewish conspiracy.' The film survived the onslaught. But did it turn people away from their faith in Jesus Christ?

The problem with any such protest is that it emanates from people who haven't seen the film in question. In the case of Sins, it is certain that they haven't. Nobody has. The film still awaits release. So what's the song and dance about? Let's not create a scene over a Sins that nobody has seen. Cheap publicity has never done bad films any harm!