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'I live the life of a Hindu'

The Leela Samson interview
'I live the life of a Hindu'

By Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com
January 28, 2015 10:22 IST

'Is the nation interested in the arts? Do political parties care about the arts? Is there a pride in budgeting for the arts? No.'

'That is the bottom line. No one really cares... Culture is always a low second priority for any minister whose main activity is another ministry of greater relevance to the nation.'

Danseuse Leela Samson speaks to Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com on why she stepped down as chairman of the Censor Board, the difficulties in functioning as its chief and the sadly limited interest the country has in the arts.

Ever since Leela Samson resigned as chairman of the Censor Board of Film Certification on January 15, shortly after the film, The Messenger of God on Dera Saccha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan, was passed by the appellate tribunal, citing 'interference, coercion and corruption,' she has been in the eye of a storm.

Her resignation was followed by several other members of the CBFC board and the quick appointment of a new chairman, Hindi film producer Pahlaj Nihalani.

An internationally celebrated Bharata Natyam artiste, Leela Samson was earlier director of Kalakshetra -- India's premier Bharata Natyam school set up by Rukmini Devi Arundale and of which she was an alumna herself -- from 2005 to 2012.

Samson was appointed chairperson of the CBFC in 2011 by the United Progressive Alliance government. Although her tenure ended last year, she continued in her post under the new dispensation, with which she seemingly shared an uneasy relationship.

Once she quit as censor board chairperson and broke her silence on the sorry state of affairs in India's film-certifying body, Union ministers Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore and Arun Jaitley wasted no time in responding to her charges, with the latter even calling Samson and her colleagues who resigned as 'rebels without a cause.'

In an e-mail interview with Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com, Samson spoke frankly and forthrightly about her tenure at the CBFC and other controversies. She apologised for not responding swiftly enough with her replies as she was busy dancing and rehearsing her company.

Critics say your decision to resign from the censor board was calculated to show the new government in poor light, since you were not ideologically in sync with it and considering that you shared an uneasy relationship with it. Was that the case?

I had a very uncomfortable relationship with the previous regime. I have had no problem at all with the present government. I simply do not understand why they took so long to put in their own people and replace our board and me.

Neither you nor the new government have any idea what my true ideology is and therefore are assuming too much.

Was the tribunal's certificate to The Messenger of God the trigger? What exactly did you find objectionable about the film?

I have not seen the film. I was not a panel member. I find nothing objectionable about it. The chairman's opinion is of little consequence in certifying a film.

The hype around a film often causes those panels that see it, to become fearful of granting it a certification. It is a case of 'wrong if you do, wrong if you don't.'

You cited 'corruption' in the Central Board of Film Certification and 'interference' by the information and broadcasting ministry and 'coercion' when you resigned.

Subsequently, Minister of State for I&B Rathore denied any political interference, and also that you had not brought any issue of corruption to their notice.

Did you highlight any specific case of corruption to the ministry? If yes, what was their response? If not, why not?

Interference comes in many forms -- individual, groups, official, private -- and is addressed to junior officers, senior officers and though rarely, also to the chair. It is up to us to withstand such pressure.

Unfortunately, officers are unable to, for fear of losing their jobs and perhaps because there is also the glamour of the industry on the one hand and the possibility of a bribe on the other.

The I&B ministry has often had to intervene due to pressure from one or another ideological group -- political, language, religious, of a particular community or area etc or simply by opportunists.

I had reached the end of my ability to deal with this and its many hues.

I did not need to bring up any case. The ministry is aware of the pressure that films make on the CBFC and on them.

Can you bring up any specific case of political interference? And of coercion?

Viswaroopam (Kamal Hassan's Tamil film) was a case in point. So was (Prakash Jha's) Aarakshan.

State governments banned these films predicting violence. Law and order is their responsibility. In fact, law and order was not a problem in these two cases.

Talking of corruption in the censor board, CEO Rakesh Kumar was arrested for corruption during your term. Didn't that set off alarm bells in the system that something was rotten? What did you do after the scandal to prevent its recurrence?

It unfortunately provided a loophole for more corruption as he was arrested as the regional officer Mumbai when there was no CEO.

On his arrest, there was neither a CEO, nor a regional office till much later. Neither was there a legitimate board nor chairperson, as our terms had expired!

The chair was asked to stay 'till replaced' on an office note that was sent to my personal secretary only last week! (Editor: This interview was conducted over the weekend).

No one respects you when you are on hold like that, least of all the ministry.

Given that political interference in the running of the censor board is par for the course under every regime, why did you choose to react so strongly? What was the breaking point?

I had offered my resignation when the new government took over. I was waiting for them to replace me.

Their negligence in not doing so frustrated me and the members of the board, as we were not allowed to hold a meeting for a year -- from before the elections, in January 2014, till the date of our resignation January 2015.

Any kind of pressure was enough for us to throw in the towel. Successive governments -- I repeat -- successive governments had shown us scant respect.

One of the charges levelled against you is that you were an 'absentee chairman.' Were you one?

For a job that does not give the chairman even a sitting fee for a meeting, this is a case of adding insult to injury.

I can say with a clear conscience that my board and I served with all the enthusiasm at our disposal.

When you accepted the censor board chairman's post, were you aware that it was quite the hot seat and that whatever you do, or don't do, will get magnified manifold?

That does nor deter one from taking up what we believed to be a challenge.

The censor board's certificate to Aamir Khan's PK, image, left, which some feel portrays Hindus/Hinduism in a bad light, while denying one to MSG, has been questioned.

What do you have to say about the certificate to PK? What was your role vis-a-vis this film?

Due process was followed in both. I have no idea why the panels did what they did. I never saw either film.

If you are suggesting I influenced the decision of the panels, you might wish to speak to those people who were on these panels and check whether I influenced them or not.

When I am under the scanner, why take my word for it?

The Malayalam film Pitavinum Putranum';s director says his film has been denied a certificate for two years ostensibly because it shows Christians in a bad light.

Does the censor board follow different standards for different communities?

For the longest time I have told the government that the panel members must be well-versed in films and sensitive, enlightened individuals. It is the government that has chosen every single panel member in the country who certified these films you mentioned.

Neither my board nor I had anything to do with who they were, how competent they were or allowed to even conduct the orientation courses that we had put together for them.

But their entirely independent decision on films, that I do not even know they are watching, then becomes my decision, the decision of the chairman? Does this not seem strange to you and to the government?

What would you rate as your legacy in the censor board?

Unappreciated transparency and honesty.

Moving on to larger issues, what is the importance of the censor board in today's times? In what ways is our censor board irrelevant? How can it be revived, strengthened, made meaningful etc?

The new board and the new government will, I am sure, decide on its relevance or irrelevance. Also how it can be revived, strengthened and made meaningful.

When I had something to say and the board and I spoke in one voice, we were not paid any attention to. It is of no consequence now what I think.

You were an UPA appointee, and saw six months of the new government. Which was the better government to function under, and why?

Ambika Soniji (then I&B minister) wisely left us alone to deal with the problems at hand.

Under Manish Tiwari (who succeeded Soni as I&B minister) we suffered great humility.

The new government has simply not had the time to deal with the CBFC till this crisis happened and then appointed the new board within 24 hours! That's all that was needed to put us out of our misery and get on with their support.

Your critics say you held six simultaneous charges under the UPA government, but we could find four -- CBFC chairperson, Sangeet Natak Akademi chief, cultural advisor to the prime minister and director of Kalakshetra.

Were there two more designations we are not aware of? Don't you think this high number of simultaneous designations was rather unusual?

I am not aware of the 'cultural advisor' bit, nor of any other. You might want to listen less to rumour and simply verify these charges. Does such a post exist even?

I do believe that there were others more competent whom they might have placed in these three capacities.

After a full year of my leaving as director of Kalakshetra they appointed someone far more adept at the job.

Even though I offered my resignation to Mr (Prakash) Javadekar (the Narendra Modi government's first I&B minister), the ministry asked me to stay on. Even a day before I resigned the secretary asked me to call a board meeting.

I resigned from the Sangeet Natak Akademi well before my tenure was over, due entirely to the fact that there, too, the new government has failed to appoint an executive board for over six months.

I refuse to head an apex body of the arts without an executive board or a general council in place. The secretary, Sangeet Natak Akademi, takes instructions directly from the ministry.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi is, like the CBFC, an autonomous organisation. What is going on in these institutions? Is the nation interested in the arts?

Do political parties care about the arts? Is there a pride in budgeting for the arts? No.

That is the bottom line. No one really cares. Those who get culture consider it a punishment posting and say so. There are scant exceptions.

Culture is always a low second priority for any minister whose main activity is another ministry of greater relevance to the nation.

While we have the highest regard for you, your detractors say the reason you were given so many offices by the UPA was your proximity to the Nehru-Gandhi family, alleging specifically that you taught Bharata Natyam to Priyanka Gandhi, image, left.

For the record, did you teach her dance? If yes, how did that come about?

I have wondered whether every other tutor of the Gandhi children were similarly rewarded!

Priyanka came to a little dance class I took in Delhi when she was six years old. Does the country deny her the right to learn from an ordinary, inexperienced tutor only because she is a Gandhi?

I have taught other children who came from other backgrounds. No concession was granted to her. She was and remains an exceptional person.

What is it in our psyche that brings up issues such as this and throws it at the child -- now an adult, and at her teacher, now greying -- as though it was a sin committed?

Do I have no other credentials other than that I taught this child too for a short period in her life and gave her a legitimate glimpse of the world of Bharata Natyam?

And, what do you have to say about the charge of proximity to the Gandhis?

You can charge me with anything you like. It does not make it true.

I am not close to the Gandhi family except that I taught their child and that they were normal parents who wanted her, in spite of all the tragedy of their childhoods, to lead as normal a life as they could give them and for her to be involved in the beauty of our arts.

They were gracious and I was happy to know their child. I have always had a special feeling for all my students. She is one among them.

I have also had, by the way, children of people who were in the BJP and who remain close to the present government.

What among all the jobs you held meant the most to you, and which you miss the most today, where you feel you could have done much more than what you were able to?

I loved them with a passion. I was not able to do much for any of them. I do not miss any of them. You will be surprised, and may choose not to believe me, but I am not attached to position at all.

Why is that controversies seem to follow you -- first at Kalakshetra, Chennai, and now at the censor board?

I am not fit for government niceties.

I also do not suffer male chauvinists. Why appoint women whom you think will be 'nice' rather than honest?

In the online space there is an army of critics against you, mostly, it seems, because they feel you are 'anti-Hindu.' Does such criticism bother you?

Those who consider me anti-Hindu do not know me at all. Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life, a philosophy.

I live the life of a Hindu. No one can take that away from me. I did not have to convert to be that way. I simply am.

It also does not make me less Christian or less Jewish. Just more appreciative.

Do you think it is more difficult for a non-Hindu to first make a mark and then achieve a differentiator's role in a field that harks back to the country's ancient heritage, like Bharata Natyam with you?

Specifically, do you think this criticism is held out against you because you are a non-Hindu teaching an art form that has its origins in the country's legends?

More difficult or less is not of consequence. That is my karma. I am thankfully not the only teacher of the style.

In any event, I have not taught since 2005 when many things dear to me -- teaching, dancing, writing and my desire to choreograph was taken away -- to try and make me competent to run Kalakshetra.

I failed in doing that. But have gone back to dancing and choreography. I have been dancing and rehearsing my company.

I do now what I love. No one needs to study with me. There have been and always will be great teachers of the art.

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Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com in Mumbai
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