NEW DELHI — He may have won a Nobel Prize, but renowned Harvard economist Amartya Sen cannot say the word “cow” in a new documentary, India’s movie censorship board has ruled.
The documentary, called “The Argumentative Indian,” is named after a book of essays written by Sen that dwells (rather ironically) on India’s long history of intellectual pluralism and public debate. The movie will not get a license for public screenings in India unless the cuts are implemented.
Censors have not said why the word “cow” is objectionable. The documentary at one point talks about the Hindu nationalist, self-styled cow protectors who attack people, mainly Muslims, for carrying or eating beef. Hindus consider the cow to be sacred.
The move comes against the backdrop of a rising nationalistic fervor in India after the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. The party has pushed policies in line with its conservative view of Hinduism, the predominant religion in this diverse nation.
Director Suman Ghosh told India’s Telegraph newspaper that the censorship “underlines the relevance of the documentary in which Sen highlights the growing intolerance in India.”
He added, “There is no way I would agree to beep or mute or change anything that one of the greatest minds of our times has said in the documentary.”
It wasn’t just cows that caught the censors’ attention. Ghosh was also asked by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to remove words such as “Gujarat,” the name of an Indian state, “Hindu India,” and “Hindutva view of India,” referring to the nationalist Hindu ideology espoused by the BJP. The filmmakers face a lengthy appeals process through which they will attempt to fight the censorship board’s decision.
In India, where films draw audiences numbering in the millions, nationalist ideology has slowly seeped into the experience of going to the movies. In 2016, the Supreme Court ordered that the national anthem be played before every screening and that audiences must stand during it.
The CBFC has increasingly come under fire for overzealous censorship and moral policing under the leadership of Pahlaj Nihalani, a vocal supporter of the BJP, who appears to take offense at any implied criticism of India or Hinduism.
Recently, the board asked directors to remove all references to the northern state of Punjab in a crime drama called “Udta Punjab,” meaning “Flying Punjab” or “High Punjab.” Instead, the board demanded, the movie should be set in a fictional land. Censors made no comment at the time as to why references to Punjab were objectionable.
In the recent James Bond movie, “Spectre,” a kissing scene was cut short. Another controversy involves an upcoming Bollywood romantic comedy called “Jab Harry Met Sejal,” playing on the title of “When Harry Met Sally,” in which censors objected to the word “intercourse.”
The threat of violence from right-wing mobs also has resulted in censorship in recent months. In the Bollywood blockbuster “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil,” the role of Pakistani actor Fawad Khan was allegedly trimmed after a right-wing group threatened to burn cinemas down.
“The Argumentative Indian,” which centers on Sen, shows clips of his conversations with former World Bank chief economist Kaushik Basu.
The word “cow,” which the board wants removed from the film, is heard in an answer to Basu’s question about the context of Sen's book, according to the Telegraph. As part of his answer, Sen says, “There was a kind of grandness of vision there, and an integrated picture which hangs together in trying to embrace each other, not through chastising people for having mistreated a cow or some other thing, but dealing with people in terms of argument.”
Speaking to the Telegraph, Harvard historian Sugata Bose, who also features in the documentary, lambasted attempts to block the film. “It is a preposterous and unacceptable assault on the freedom of expression. The film ought to be given a certificate immediately. It is an academic film primarily where every word has been carefully weighed,” he said.