As I sit down to write this in mid-August, news has just come in that Pahlaj Nihalani has had his scissors taken away. To say that Nihalani was the most controversial Chairperson of CBFC would be an understatement. Why he was chosen in the first place will remain an eternal mystery; perhaps the people who chose him forgot to tell him that CBFC stands for Central Board of Film Certification, not Central Board of Film Censors. But whatever its nomenclature, its work has always been of a contentious nature, and in all probability, that`s not likely to change. That is so for two reasons: firstly, the structure of the organisation, and secondly, a fuzzy understanding of what it is really supposed to do.
Let`s look at the structure. Because the Chairperson and members of CBFC`s Board are outsiders (people from cinema, writers, social workers etc), it is assumed that it is an independent body. It is not. It is a government organisation under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and it is really run by its full-time CEO and Regional Officers, who are all government servants. Things may have changed from the time many years ago when I was on the CBFC`s Board, but what I remember is this: at each screening of a film coming up for certification, the dominant person on the committee was the Regional Officer. Most of the other committee members (the part-time Board), were content to go along with his suggestions. And since the shots are called by government servants, you can be sure they will always err on the side of caution. So unless the chairperson intervenes strongly, (and he is not Nihalani), a film that`s critical of government policies or entrenched institutions or is seen to defy rigid moral codes, will be in trouble.
Then there`s the ‘code’ itself which lays down the guidelines which CBFC is required to follow. Here are some of the ‘Don’t`s’ that appear in it and are generally used to impose cuts on ‘troublesome’ films : A film should ‘not deprave the morality of the audience’; a film should not jeopardize or endanger ‘the security of the state’; a film should ensure that ‘friendly relations with foreign states are not strained’; it should ensure that ‘public order is not endangered’. And finally, ‘visuals or words involving defamation of an individual or a body of individuals’ should not be presented.
As you can see, these guidelines have been framed with the belief that cinema is the hand-maiden of the government. How can a movie, made by an independent producer and director, impair relations with a foreign country? These examples are old, but they show the absurdity that such a guide-line, interpreted by a government servant, can lead to. The James Bond film From Russia with Love was renamed From 007 With Love by CBFC so as not to offend Russia. And in a Woody Allen film where a character says ‘When President Nixon comes to your house, better count the cutlery’, the sentence was deleted so that the US would not be upset. And it was an American movie, shown widely in the US !
The morality clause causes the most trouble. The film Udta Punjab which dealt with the very real drug problem in Punjab had 94 cuts imposed on it. The producer was even asked to change the real names of Punjab cities to fictitious ones. In short, reality was deemed to be too much for the delicate sensibilities of the audience. On appeal, the courts reduced that to just one cut !
Why is cinema singled out for such attention? Newspapers and magazines have no statutory body telling them what to print and what not to print. That goes for books too. The Editor and the editorial staff, at least in responsible publications, exercise their own judgement on what should appear. CBFC supporters argue that publications are restricted to the literate part of the population, so they cannot harm the mass public. If that is so, what about a mass medium like television? In spite of its reach across the country, and its entry directly into people`s homes (unlike cinema), television has no equivalent of CBFC. Channels themselves exercise their judgement on what should be shown to its audience. And the concept of censorship in the age of the Internet, where content is not only uncontrolled, but can be dangerous and depraved, is a bit of a joke.
The Shyam Benegal Committee tasked by the I & B Ministry to look into the question of reform, came up with the sensible suggestion that CBFC should not impose cuts, but should only certify films into various categories, mainly to protect children. The report seems to have been shelved.
Isn`t it ironic that the large mass of people in the country are deemed to have enough sense to elect the government, but the elected government doesn`t think the same people are able to distinguish reality from fiction in a movie? Indian cinema is often criticised for its escapism, but it’s the fear of the censor that keeps film makers from tackling hard subjects. It’s reform of CBFC which will allow our film industry to finally grow up. After 70 years of Independence, surely it’s time ?