The Oscars are round the corner and there has been much heartburn that no person of colour has been nominated in any category. All I can say is that the selection has been made on grounds of quality and this extreme political correctness is frankly quite silly. But above all, dear reader, be thankful that we get to see quality films, many of them disturbing, thanks to a process which values excellence in cinematography and acting and is not guided by ‘public sentiment’.
This amorphous public sentiment seems to have an overweening influence on those who man our censor board or rather the Central Board for Film Certification. So much so that information and broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley himself has had to step in to put an end to the arbitrary depredations of its somewhat overenthusiastic head Pahlaj Nihalani. The minister rightly has sought that the censor board be controversy-free — it has been anything but that under the redoubtable Mr Nihalani.
In this day and age, when films and documentaries are freely available on social media, it seems to me a little archaic that a small huddle of people are screening films and deciding what is fit to watch and for whom. Mr Nihalani is particularly sensitive to a host of issues. In the Bond film Spectre his eagle eye fell on a somewhat lengthy kissing scene which he snipped to an appropriate length in one stroke. He also displayed a propensity to substitute ‘unsuitable’ words with ones which bear no resemblance to the original word or indeed make any sense at all. One mild cuss word was replaced by ‘cats’ to the bafflement of viewers.
A panel headed by eminent film maker Shyam Benegal has now been constituted to look into the issue of certification, please note, not censorship. Mr Benegal certainly knows his onions as do his colleagues on the panel. All great films have thrived on creative licence. Imagine a film like Pulp Fiction being shorn of its disturbingly violent scenes because it might offend some fainthearted soul. Even the Last Temptation of Christ, against which many of the faithful railed, was screened because it was seen to depict events which had historical authenticity. I can think of so many such movies. When I was a child, I remember making a heartfelt plea to be allowed to see the Exorcist, only to be firmly put down by my mother. The film played for weeks in the local theatre with the appropriate certification, which kept me out.
Imagine the dystopian satirical film A Clockwork Orange without its violence or Last Tango in Paris with truncated sex scenes. I am not suggesting that anything goes. But it is not the job of the CBFC to tailor films for suitable viewing, it is to certify the film for universal or adult viewing. I am sure it is well within its rights to make suggestions to film makers if a scene or two are thought to be beyond the bounds of public decency or are propagating negative ideas. But there it should end.
In the American system, a film can opt to not be certified at all providing that this is stated clearly. In the UK, certification is done by an autonomous body called the British Board of Film Certification. It is not the job of the censor to ensure public morality or preserve religious sensibility as it is being done here. In a bizarre turn of events, the regional censor board in Karnataka has taken grave objection and refused to certify some films depicting the lives of reformers from an earlier age who actually fought superstition. I find it hilarious that the promotion of rationality in a film should be found more offensive than a political leader with snakes wrapped around his neck or conducting expensive yagnas in a state which is reeling from drought.
I have often heard people asking why our films don’t fare too well on the international stage. I know that our song and dance formula and family values are tried and tested themes. But, barring a few, our films are not breaking any creative barriers. It took a foreigner to make a film like Slumdog Millionaire on very Indian themes. A foreigner has made the hugely enjoyable Best Exotic Marigold Hotel again in India and on an Indian theme. I will bet you my bottom dollar that if a genuinely creative film were made which has a religious or sexual theme, our censors would get all sniffy about it.
What Mr Jaitley has done is to move one step closer to giving young film makers a chance to unleash their creativity without the snipping sound of Mr Nihalani’s scissors in the background. To get back to Spectre, it could easily be downloaded and watched in its unedited form. And honestly, I can see that many great film makers may not even want their films to be screened here if silly cuts and needless words are substituted in them. Many of our own film makers have confessed to being baffled by the cuts imposed by the censors. They have said that often these have disrupted the flow of the film and made it jumpy and odd.
This is the time to revamp the entire certification process. It should not comprise political appointees who know nothing about films or the process. Facing a rather belligerent television anchor, Mr Nihalani confessed his ignorance about a number of iconic films thrown at him. I would imagine that the first qualification of a certifying authority would be a sound knowledge of the subject.
The other day I watched a re-run of the Gladiator, for which Russell Crowe won an Oscar award. The scenes of gladiatorial contests in ancient Rome were gory and stomach-churning, to say the least. But it was a part of the story and could not have been edited out or minimised in any way. Many films, like for example, the Godfather trilogy, have scenes of extreme violence, and yet they make for compelling viewing. The violence seems almost organic in its context.
I can only hope that the Benegal-led panel will bring some realism into our certification process, moving it away from censorship. The very word censorship seems antediluvian. If people are denied parts of a film, they will simply see them through other media vehicles. And the so-called custodians of morality and sensibilities are so out of sync with today’s India, barring the really loony fringe. Let us not give audiences sanitised films, if they don’t like a particular scene they are at liberty not to waste their money watching it, but that choice should belong to them, not the Nihalanis of the world who would like to keep us permanently infantilised.