The Censorship debate on Indian Films

The 100-decibel noise made around the censorship suggestions for Anurag Kashyap’s Udta Punjab brings back the whole question about whether in a democratic country like India censorship really holds any meaning.

The other significant feature is that in case the filmmaker enters into a dispute and refuses to carry out the former’s recommendations, the filmmaker can seek legal justice from the respective courts of the country, thus, rendering the CBFC redundant in a certain sense. So, at the end of it all, the filmmakers won hands down in the big battle with the CBFC and with a few changes, marched their film to the screens, leaving Pehlaj Nihalani who claims to be a “chamcha” of PM Narendra Modi, pink-faced.

But censorship in India is a two-pronged knife that cuts both ways and though Nihalani’s move to delete different things from the film beginning with “Punjab” from the title has created a furore, this interference with the filmmaker’s freedom of expression is nothing new. It has been on since the very practice of censoring films stepped into the cinema scenario of India.

Cinema apart, without realising this, we actually live within a web of censorship. The reporter whose copy is cut, the news agency influenced by the political power or the corporate funding behind it, the sub-editor playing with headlines that can influence the reader in a way that the original writer did not intend. In other words, the state is not the only censor.

Veteran Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (1999) wrote, “In a dictatorship, censorship is used; in a democracy, manipulation.” This would apply equally well to the climate that sustains in film censorship in India.

Way back in 1934, in British India, Censors took a strong exception to Mazdoor (1934), based on a Munshi Premchand story directed by Mohan Bhavnani in which Premchand collaborated on the screenplay. The story dealt with the conflict between capitalists and labourers and this made “the Censors come down heavily upon some of the scenes of labour unrest.” The film was finally cleared after two rounds of negotiation with the footage reduced by almost 1000 feet and its title changed to read Daya Ki Devi!

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is appointed by the state, at the regional level and at the central level. It is a quasi-judicial body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Censorship is a legacy the British left behind whose aim was to prevent showing anything anti-British in Indian films. A set of guidelines is provided in The Cinematograph Act 1952. The Board is authorized to certify films that do not violate any of these guidelines.

But the Board, both at the centre and at the regional levels, is instituted almost arbitrarily, comprised often, of members who have political backing, or, some kind of celebrity status within or without cinema, whose interests and knowledge of cinema are not taken into consideration during such appointments.

These ‘bodies’ change after a given term and these changes either remain completely indifferent to the statutory guidelines laid down by the Central Board of Film Censorship, or, change them according to their whims and fancies that often impinge on the filmmaker’s fundamental right to freedom of expression, or, deprive the audience of seeing what they ought to see and draw their own conclusions.

Veteran journalist and author Aruna Vasudev says, “The government’s dilemma rests on finding the right people who are ready to devote considerable effort to this voluntary, practically unpaid and very time-consuming assignment. It is too much to expect one individual to combine the qualities of an educationist, sociologist and anthropologist plus have a wide background in film.”

Each regional panel has around 30 to 40 members who are called for screenings on rotation. But many cannot make it for the screenings at the capital on short notice. Therefore, the same four or five members who live within the capital city keep watching the films and impose their personal moral codes, thus exercising a power they do not have.

“Censorship is highly subjective and essentially mindless. The main motivation for censorship is intolerance. Conventional wisdom and official ideology cannot be allowed to be questioned and criticized and must be suppressed. Portrayal of historical events that depict a government or certain persons or groups in an unfavourable light cannot be tolerated and should therefore be suppressed by recourse to censorship” This is a comment by Soli Sorabjee in the Indian Express (January 30, 2007) following the non-screening of Parzania in Gujarat. The film was rejected by multiplex owners in Gujarat for fear of a Hindu backlash.

The members of the CBFC stick to the values that sustained in Indian society way back in 1952 and that too, by colouring the same with their own moral stance.

For instance, in 2015, they muted the word “lesbian” from Dum Lagake Haisha which is a powerful feminist statement on marriage. Earlier this year, they had strong issues with Hansal Mehta’s brilliant bio-pic Aligarh and granted it an “A” certificate just because the word “homosexuality”. The film was based on the last years of the life of Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras who taught Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University. He was sacked from his position on charges of homosexuality. The unending humiliation, insult, financial constraints and social ostracism forced him to commit suicide. Should this very important film be given an “A” Certificate?

Pehlaj Nihalani

Pehlaj Nihalani insisted on cutting down on the kissing scene in the recent James Bond action thriller Spectre though kissing in public is common practice in the West and also not very uncommon in Indian metro cities today. To add fuel to fire, at the press conference, he went on to defend the cutting of the kissing scene by stating, “I have not seen the film. It is not my job to watch all movies. In fact, I have not even seen a single shot of the film including the kissing scene. My panel members have seen the film!”

The Central Board of Film Certification’s guidelines amended up to May 1983, clearly laid down its three-fold objectives of censorship: (a) the medium of cinema remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society, (b) artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed, and (c) censorship is responsive to social change.
These objectives are ambiguous because they beg the question of defining what I & B Ministry means by ‘standards of society.’

The Board is silent about who sets these standards and on what basis. The Board is comprised of a chairman with a minimum of 20 nominated members from different backgrounds. In other words, it is a multi-personal body representing a microcosm of India’s diverse culture. How can such diverse members be expected to arrive at a unanimous decision or definition of artistic expression and creative freedom? These are subjective and relative to time, individual and place, culture and language, education and class.

Controversies get raised when questions are asked not only about the efficacy of the CBFC as a watchman of Indian morals but also about its redundancy in the face of STAR, CNN, cable networks that do not fall under the axe of the CBFC. Such controversies are bound to occur when one film like Pati Parmeshwar produced by the late R.K. Nayyar is refused a certificate while another film like Shahenshah clearly gets a “U” certificate from the same board around the same time.

Is the CBFC a cinematic ass? Or, is it a political one? Or is it a sandbag and a whipping boy of filmmakers across the country with nominal powers that are taken away by the politicians in power whenever they feel like it?

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  • Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time.


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