Frames per Second: The strange career of Kissa Kursi Ka

Poster of Kissa Kursi Ka
In a longish feature for Film Comment (May-June 1980), American journalist Elliott Stein wrote about the forays made by Indian film personalities into politics. “In no country are cinema and politics more closely intertwined,” he noted. Some of the events, he noted while covering Filmotsav ’80, a film festival held in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), were M.G.R becoming the chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 1977, Dilip Kumar being appointed the sheriff of Bombay (now Mumbai), and the successful launch and quick folding up of a new National Party by Dev Anand. “One case of Indian politics-cum-film received world attention because it involved Sanjay Gandhi,” wrote Stein. “In 1977, Amrit Nahata, the producer of Kissa Kursi Ka brought a suit against Mrs Gandhi’s son, claiming that he had stolen and destroyed all of the prints of the film, which caricatured his mother’s regime.” 

The Kissa Kursi Ka case was a landmark example of how Indira Gandhi’s regime clamped down on its critics in the film industry during the Emergency (1975-1977). Journalist Coomi Kapoor describes in some detail the fate of the film in her book The Emergency: A Personal History. “Just before the Emergency, in April 1975… Nahata, a Congress MP, submitted the movie Kissa Kursi Ka, starring Shabana Azmi, Raj Babbar and Manohar Singh, to the censors. The film was a parody of politics in India and featured characters who seemed to be based on real-life individuals… Most offending to the government was a clear spoof on Sanjay Gandhi and his small-car project.” The censor board forwarded the film to the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B) and fifty-one objections were made. Eventually, the government banned the film. 

“But banning the film wasn’t enough for [I&B minister V C Shukla] and Sanjay,” writes Kapoor. “All the prints of the movie, including the master proof of the film, were sent to the Maruti factory [in Haryana], where they were burnt.” However, after the end of the Emergency, Sanjay and Shukla were convicted for their extra-legal actions and eagerness to censor critics. “Sanjay, who had resigned from the Congress at the start of the Janata regime, was sentenced, along with V C Shukla, by a lower court to two years’ imprisonment for destroying the master negative of the film… He filed an appeal in the high court. But at one stage his bail was cancelled and he had to spend some nights in jail.” 

But by 1980, Indira Gandhi — voted out in 1977 at the end of the Emergency — was back in power, and Sanjay Gandhi was calling the shots again without holding any office. “[Amrit] Nahata recently came forth to state that he had perjured himself and that the charges had been false,” writes Stein in his Film Comment article. “Ten days after Mrs Gandhi returned to office, the police officer who headed the investigation which had led to Sanjay’s conviction was arrested, then released.” The bizarre career of Kissa Kursi Ka, which is now available freely online, is symptomatic of the culture of censorship which characterized the Emergency.

Journalist Romesh Thapar, who also had a brush with censorship when his niche magazine Seminar was forced to close down during the Emergency, followed Kissa Kursi Ka closely in his column “Capital View” for the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). On June 14, 1975, weeks before the Emergency was announced, he wrote about how the Bombay film industry was producing, for the first time, several political film. He mentions Garm Hava (1973); Aandhi (1975), which was also banned during the Emergency; a slew of films about the lives of smugglers; and Kissa Kursi Ka, and adds that such films are often denied certification by the censor board. 

In 1979, the film reappears in Thapar’s column. He reports in October of that year how Nahata apparently tried to join the Rajasthan unit of the Congress and on hearing this Indira Gandhi reportedly said: “My son and Vidya Charan [Shukla] are going to jail for two years. Tell him to join them.” In December 1979, Thapar comments on politicians jumping parties and refers to Nahata again: “If an Amrit Nahata withdraws from the Kissa Kursi Ka proceedings and the public speculates on the kind of persuasion used on him.” Finally in February 1980, he reports a protest by policemen in New Delhi over the arrest of “Deputy Inspector General N K Singh, who conducted the Kissa Kursi Ka case”. 

The case revealed the power that the Gandhis had not only over branches of the government but also the judiciary. Even three years after the Emergency and an electoral humbling, Indira and Sanjay continued to use intimidation to keep critics in check. Senior lawyer A G Noorani referred to the arrest of N K Singh at least twice — in 1982 and 1984 — in his “Civil Liberties” column for EPW, describing it as unlawful detention. “A fortnight after Indira Gandhi’s return to power, N K Singh, the CBI officer who had investigated the Kissa Kursi Ka case, was dragged away from his house on January 29, 1980,” wrote Noorani in 1982. “Two jeep loads of armed policemen surrounded his house well before dawn and he was asked to accompany them to Gurgaon [Gurugram] for interrogation. His demand for a written notice was turned down. He was formally put under arrest in Gurgaon. Zail Singh, then Union home minister, blithely told the Rajya Sabha that N K Singh had not been arrested but merely taken away for ‘jankari’ (investigation). But the police have no power to take away a citizen for investigation.” As Stein reports, Singh was let off afterwards — but the message was clear. 

With Nahata also withdrawing his case, the conviction of Sanjay and Shukla were overturned by the Supreme Court. “In April 1980, a three-member Bench set aside the conviction of both Sanjay Gandhi and V. C. Shukla in the notorious Kissa Kursi Ka case, leaving without cover both Justice O. N. Vohra (who, after eleven months of trial and 6,500 pages of evidence, had convicted them and who, later on, paid the price for doing so when he was refused a permanent position on the Delhi Bench) and Chief Justice Chandrachud (who, as a member of the Supreme Court Bench, had cancelled Sanjay Gandhi’s bail on May 5, 1978, and sent him to jail for one month ‘for tampering with witnesses’ in this case),” writes legal scholar Bhagwan D Dua in his 1983 essay “A Study in Executive-Judicial Conflict: The Indian Case.” 

Though the brazenness with which Kissa Kursi Ka was dealt with has never been repeated, it sent a clear message to the detractors of the government. The first mainstream film on the Emergency, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, was made only in 2003. Thapar’s lament in 1975 that there are only few political films is true of our times as well. Movies such as Yuva (2004), Raajneeti (2010), Haider (2014) or Newton (2017) are exceptions than the rule. One space where censorship had not extended its tentacles till now was streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney and others. This allowed filmmakers to explore overtly political subjects in shows such as Sacred Games (Season 1, 2018, and Season 2, 2019), Paatal Lok (2020), and Tandav (2021). But with the government introducing new regulations for the streaming platforms such as Netflix last week, even this space will now be under scrutiny. 

Streaming platforms in India are going through a boom, aided by the medium as well as the pandemic which shut down cinemas. According to some reports, there are more than 40 such platforms, mostly in regional languages. The new rules will require them to classify their content into five categories based on age suitability. Some film personalities such as producer Ekta Kapoor and writer Prasoon Joshi have supported the rules, while producer Pritish Nandy and director Onir have criticized it. One can’t help but wonder why the government feels the need to tell the citizens what they can watch. Is the worry really about children watching adult content without parental supervision? Or, is it about what the parents — who pay the fees of these streaming platforms — might watch?

The writer’s novel, Ritual, was published last year.  

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