But don’t we already have a journalist?’ The lights dim and I sink deeper into one of the plush, reclining leather sofas at the small 32-seater screening room at the Pixion theatre in Bandra. I’ve been wheedled into a screening of the Akshay Kumar-starrer Patiala House before a viewing panel from Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) who will watch the film, decide whether any scenes need to be cut or changed and will suggest whether the film should have a U, UA or A certification before it plays in cinemas across the country. Four people hold the fate of the film and one of them has just raised a doubt about the inclusion of an ‘expert’ invited by the CBFC in the panel. It turns out that I am a cricket writer and the film, centred around the story of a chap who, after facing difficult circumstance within his family, plays cricket for the England side. My being a ‘cricket expert’ calms my fellow censor down as we proceed to make notes and watch Patiala House before the rest of India gets to see it.
Before the screening, we are told by the CBFC official in the room to look out for any discrepancies in the way Sikh characters in the film are shown wearing their turbans. It turns out that somehow, a ‘Khalsa’ organisation has sent a letter to the CBFC chairperson asking the censors to be vigilant of any depiction of the Sikh community in Patiala House in an unflattering light. The CBFC official is apologetic about telling us to keep our eyes peeled for the dodgy depictions of Sardarjis. But in the end — after one of the panel members asks whether the remark ‘Saale angrez’ should be allowed to stay or not in the film (it does, as it can be a ‘reasonable utterance made in rage in the context of the scene’) and there’s a unanimous decision to certify Patiala House as a ‘U’ movie — the only change sought and voluntarily agreed by the visibly relieved director and producer called in after the viewing-cum-discussion pertains to dropping a frame showing a ‘surrogate advertisement’. In other words, Patiala House is ready to be screened in all cinemas and viewed by everyone across the length and breadth of this land.
“People tend to think of the CBFC as an organisation with people bent on just cutting scenes and banning movies and make life in general difficult for filmmakers and the public,” says Sharmila Tagore, who after a seven-year innings as CBFC chairperson stepped down last week (with Shabana Azmi probably taking taking over soon). “But our job is ensure that films shown in this huge country with its disparate tastes across communities, regions and denominations don’t offend some group somewhere. It’s not about people like you and me just finding a film perfectly harmless or worthwhile. It has to be acceptable for the sensibilities of someone sitting somewhere in a small town or village in Bihar or UP too.” She tells me about a regional documentary film on child trafficking that doesn’t even bother to mask the faces of the ‘victims’. “We have to intervene in situations like this.”
At a meeting in early February with Hindi film producers and filmmakers that include the likes of Mahesh Bhatt, Aamir Khan, Zoya Akhtar, Rakeysh Mehra, Asutosh Gowarikar and Raj Kumar Hirani, Tagore is keen that the cinema industry and the CBFC share issues and concerns. “Maam, I’d like know if there are any guidelines regarding the depiction of smoking in films,” asks Aamir Khan. The CBFC position is that it is a health ministry issue and not that of the I&B ministry under which the CBFC operates. Instead of the matter being cleared between the two sides of the governmental-filmmaking fence, an argument ensues when Khan suggests that producers show a “30-second clip” before the start of a film in which one of the actors comes on screen and tells the audience that smoking is harmful and it is his character that is smoking in the film and that as an actor he does not condone the habit. This draws a strong reaction from Zoya Akhtar in which she makes the strong point of not wanting viewers of her film to have the “magic of what’s real and what’s cinema merging” be broken right at the beginning when the lights dim. Everyone proceeds to look into the matter later.
A CBFC official brings up the matter of do’s and don’t’s when it comes to the depiction of the national anthem in films. “The Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act is very clear that the national anthem has to be depicted in a film in a very specific way. Playing around with it is not allowed.” Rakeysh Mehra looks sombre and raises his hand. It turns out that his forthcoming film has the national anthem sung ‘creatively’ by Kishori Amonkar and he wants to seriously know whether the CBFC will have problems with that. The official softens a bit when he hears the name Kishori Amonkar but adds that if this ‘version’ is allowed, there will be “all kinds of versions, even rock and jazz ones doing Jaana Gaana Maana”. Mehra responds by saying that there is a rock and jazz element in his ‘Kishori Amonkar’ version of the national anthem and the subject comes to a unresolved stop. The problem with the CBFC’s frequent duels with filmmakers has one source: the official guidelines that are too generalised, too subjective. Take the ‘objectives’ of film certification as listed by the government. They include the need to ensure that “the medium of film remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society”, “certification is responsible to social changes” and the medium of film provides “clean and healthy environment”. Timeline
Tagore agrees that there are many things that need to be done to catch up with the times. One of her longstanding demands has been to introduce a U15 rating (see box) that will be for viewing of ages between 15 and 17 under parent guidance. “There’s also changing popular sensibilities. In No One Killed Jessica, when the ‘c’ word is uttered by characters, it’s part of popular slang. But when the word is uttered by Rani Mukherjee, a hush descends in the cinema. One has to take these considerations into our job.”
CBFC CEO Pankaja Thakur points to undue bad press that the CBFC gets. She tells me how producers in a bid to get a U rating — for obvious commercial reasons, they prefer their film being allowed to be watched by the whole family — agree with the CBFC to remove or change scenes that would otherwise give the film an ‘A’ rating. “But once the films are out in the halls, they go to the media complaining about how the CBFC forced them to make cuts and how regressive the CBFC is.”
Mukesh Bhatt in the CBFC-producers, however, has a different take. He blames not the CBFC officials (“They are quite reasonable in their approach”) but those selected as panel members to watch the screenings. “They are regressive and full of old fogeys. The age group should be brought down to match the age group of the majority cinema-goers in this country.” He gives the example of how a panel member once insisted on a scene being cut because it had actors drinking alcohol with a small decorative bust of Buddha in the background. “It was crazy!" says Bhatt. “I’m sorry to say but most of the panel members are idiots.” Many of them, I’m told, are political appointees put in the panel simply to gain the odd political ruckus. How a film passes through censor machine
But it’s not a simple ‘CBFC-is-the-villain, filmmakers-are-the-victims’ scenario. Most of the protests and demands for a ban — as scores of films such as Mira Nair’s Fire (it will be poetic justice if Shabana Azmi, who was in the film, becomes the next CBFC chairperson) — come after the CBFC has cleared and certified a film. And what happens if, in this age of the internet or if a filmmaker decides to show his films only in private screenings, bypasses the CBFC altogether? After all, the certification body deals with only films for ‘public screening’ in cinemas. “There’s nothing we can do about it,” says Tagore adding without batting an eyelid, “The Bengali film Gandu is outside our purview as the director plans to show it only in private screenings.” She keeps on talking. But I have stopped listening, frozen and scandalised on hearing the ‘g’ word coming out of the lips of the till-recently CBFC chairperson.