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Sundance-Backed Political Documentary Caught in Censorship Nightmare

"An Insignificant Man" is one of a number of films that have been challenged in India by the country's national censor board.

An Insignificant Man

“An Insignificant Man”

Memesys Culture Lab

The Indian political documentary “An Insignificant Man” has played at more than 30 film festivals all over the world since premiering at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. But in India — the one country where the documentary is bound to have its strongest impact — censors are doing their best to prevent the film from being seen.

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India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the country’s national censor board, has refused to grant co-directors Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla an exhibition certificate, a crucial document needed for every theatrical release in India, until the filmmakers get written permission from the politicians featured in the documentary — including the country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

Last week, Ranka and Shukla’s lawyer informed them that the censor board hasn’t set a hearing date for their appeal of the decision.

“Right now, we are indefinitely delayed without any sort of end in sight,” Ranka said. “We were expecting some push back, because political films have always had it tough in India, but this is unprecedented. Asking for a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Prime Minister of the country is literally like placing an impossible condition on the film.”

Backed with a $50,000 documentary grant from the Sundance Institute, among other film grants, “An Insignificant Man” follows the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of a new political party in India called The Common Man’s Party. Because the documentary deals with political corruption in India and criticizes he country’s two main political parties, the film is being unfairly censored, along with other works of nonfiction in the country, according to the co-directors.

An Insignificant Man

“An Insignificant Man”

Memesys Culture Lab

“There have been various attacks on other writers who express opinions that are not in line with the establishment,” Ranka said. “It all fits into this larger space of shutting down open ideas which they may see as problematic.”

On top of requiring written permission from individual politicians, the CBFC has also asked the filmmakers to bleep out the names of the Congress Party and the Bhartiya Party, two of India’s largest political parties, from five places in the documentary. “This makes no sense,” Shukla said, adding that there has been a significant amount of public outcry against the CBFC on the film’s Facebook page.

“An Insignificant Man” already has interest from distributors for the broadcast and theatrical rights in countries like the U.S., U.K., Denmark and Finland, and the censor board cannot prevent the film from being distributed via video-on-demand in India, but without a theatrical release in the country, the film will not reach its intended audience, according to Shukla.

“It’s these audiences who are longing to have a political conversation,” Shukla said, adding that a crowdfunding campaign for the film targeting $20,000 ended up raising $120,000.

An Insignificant Man

“An Insignificant Man”

Vinay Shukla

“An Insignificant Man” is not the only Indian film subjected to seemingly draconian censorship recently. The 2016 drama “Lipstick Under My Burkha” was censored for being too “lady-oriented” before ultimately gaining an exhibition certificate following an appeal. More recently, CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani objected to a trailer for the 2017 romantic comedy “Jab Harry Met Sejal” due to the inclusion of the word “intercourse.” Nihalani required the filmmakers to obtain 100,000 votes online in support of keeping the word in both the film and trailer, which the producers did in less than a week.

“Filmmakers are being made to pay the price of running around in circles through legal processes, bureaucratic dealings and red-tapism,” Shukla said. “It’s a really damning practice that’s taking place right now.”

While other films have succeeded in overturning the censor board’s rulings, Ranka and Shukla are concerned that if Nihalani and the CBFC prevent “An Insignificant Man” from playing theatrically in India, it will discourage other documentary filmmakers in the country from tackling similar subjects.

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“There’s a certain culture of fear that is being inspired by the acts of the current censor board,” Shukla said. “If he is allowed to get away with this, it would be disastrous for the future of documentaries in India.”

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