“Race, Sexuality and Censorship: Film,  Art and Activism in India and Beyond”

Symposium report

Alka Kurian

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Film Makers Discuss Censorship in South Asia: (l to r): Alka Kurian, Shaunak Sen, Andy Schocken, Shailaja Padindala, Varun Tandon

In collaboration with Tasveer, the South Asia Center, UW Seattle, organized a one-day symposium on Race, Sexuality and Censorship: Film, Art and Activism in India and Beyond, October 18, 2016.

The symposium started out with the screening of Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan’s 2016 documentary film Cry Out Loud that surfaces the lives of African men and women living in Delhi’s Khirki Extension.  the film offers moving glimpses of the dreams, struggles, and pathos of African immigrants through the eyes of young Somali men, who have made their lives in India where they are subjected to anti-black racism and marginalization. Chaired by Radhika Govindarajan, the post-film panel discussion was led by Aretha Basu, an active member of South Asians for Black Lives Matter. The panel examined parallels between anti-black racism /communalism in India and racism in the US that discriminates against black and brown people, and explored the ways in which change was only possible through multi-racial organizing and building bridges across communities of color, breaking down racial hierarchies, challenging the model minority myth, and finding ways of liberating all minoritized people of color and indigenous people through shared struggle.

The second panel on “Censorship in Film and Art in South Asia” looked into the concerted attacks in the region on freedom of speech and press. Moderated by Keith Snodgrass and led by Alka Kurian, panel members (Shailaja Padindala, Shaunak Sen, Andy Schocken, and Varun Tandon) discussed academic and cultural policing where writers, filmmakers, intellectuals and scholars in South Asia are attacked, arrested, purged from universities, or even killed. The panel explored the myriad ways in which censorship is enacted through the state which arrests artists by charging them with sedition or contempt of court; legal petitions by community members who attack writers for upsetting social structures and norms; threats and attacks by religious paramilitary organizations that often erase the lives of artists or intellectuals for embodying free and independent minds and thoughts; the culture of impunity where the state adopts a policy of silence against oppressive practices; deterioration in public and private morality and lynch mob hysteria represented by demonstrations against dissenters or attacks on art galleries, cinema halls, and newspaper offices; and manipulation and control of media by big business cronies of the ruling party. The panel also discussed the significant role played by conscientious artists in asserting their commitment to their autonomy, creativity, and politics, and how they could redeem the situation through dissent and by taking a stand against the politics of censorship.

The LGBT program included a  presentation by Lyle Pearson on India’s Queer Cinema: Not Many Sinners where he talked about how despite a rich tradition of queer mythology in India, Henry the VIII’s anti-buggery law took effect as part of British imperialism in 1860. Presently, most depictions of homosexuality in Indian film endeavor to overturn this law, known as Section 377, rather than to perpetuate it. The screening of the film My Child is Gay and I Am Happy was followed by a panel discussion led by UW professor Chandan Reddy, where conversations focused on recriminalization of homosexuality in India, and the lack of solidarity among trans and gay communities.

The eventful and very well-attended day ended with the screening of the Bangladeshi film Oggatonama (The Unnamed) that depicted the life of Bangladeshi laborers who are exported to the Middle East, the Far East, Europe and North America. The film explored the challenges faced by these workers and their families left behind in Bangladesh. This film is Bangladesh’s entry for an Oscar.