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Toeing the Censor Board line

After decades of toeing the Censor Board line, at times to get conditional approval to release their films, the cinema fraternity draws up a wish list of how it would like to restrict the panel's role.

bollywood Updated: Jan 25, 2015 12:40 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
film certification,censor board,leela samson

The snooty Indian reader might target author Chetan Bhagat for his colloquial prose and sellable plots, but there's no arguing about the author's far-sightedness. In Bhagat's 2 States: The Story of My Marriage, 'perfect groom' Harish asks the chicken-eating, beer-drinking Tamil Brahmin Ananya Swaminathan whether she was "pure" - a reference to her sexual status.

Imagine if Bhagat had put the words "are you a virgin" in Harish's mouth. Though, Ananya was more straightforward in her reply, one shudders to think of the horror of the Central Board of Film Certification (or the Censor Board) members, if the makers of the film (based on the novel), that starred Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, had had to use the 'V' word to remain true to the book.

Take for instance director Homi Adajania, who showed such little consideration to their feelings in the critically acclaimed 2014 film Finding Fanny when he did away with subtlety and made actor Deepika Padukone declare "I am a virgin". The board had initially demanded that the line be removed from the film, though the promos for the same had been allowed to be aired without any such changes.

Indians may be indulging in lovemaking pre or post marriage, and discussing their sexual status with friends and prospective partners, in conversations, text messages and online chats, but the Censor Board, custodians of the moral wellbeing of the movie-going masses, continues to shy away from open allusions to sex.

"The word virgin was used as a noun to describe a person who hasn't had sexual intercourse before. How can that be offensive? And then the same board will pass an item song where women are being crassly objectified," says Adajania.

Adajania is not the only filmmaker to question the working of the Censor Board, nor the only one to have suffered their curbs on his creativity. On its part, the Board too is not new to controversy. Earlier this month, its chairperson Leela Samson resigned over difference of opinion regarding Dera Sachha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan's film Messenger of God(MSG). She also accused the government of "interference and coercion".

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting funds the Board and appoints its members of Earlier in 2014, Censor Board CEO Rakesh Kumar was arrested on charges of accepting bribes to clear films. The Board had also been in the news in 2004, when the UPA government had dismissed the then Censor Board, headed by actor Anupam Kher, allegedly because it had been appointed by the previous NDA government. Last week, the government responded to Samson's resignation by appointing veteran film producer Pahlaj Nihalani as the new chief.

"Worldwide any government that comes to power doesn't want to lose control over what the people are thinking. They don't want them to think for themselves. With changes in government the control keeps changing," says filmmaker Anurag Kashyap.

The director with a penchant for the dark and the gritty is known to have routinely drawn the Board's ire, right from his first film Paanch. Sex, violence, political dissent and religious sensitivity are some of the common lenses through which the Board reviews reel content. But filmmakers, analysts, critics and writers today question its relevance in the Internet era.

"As filmmakers we have to censor our material here for an audience that can enjoy downloading uncensored material by all filmmakers outside our country," rues Adajania.

The filmmaker is also unhappy with the Board's control over films being shown to a foreign audience.

"I can't figure why on earth do we have to get the Censor Board's approval for a film we are sending abroad? How does an Indian committee have the authority to be the moral police for a firang society," he wonders.

Others move beyond the Board, to pick flaws in the very system of censoring.

"We should turn our attentions to the Act that allows the existence of such a Board," says filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee, adding, "And it is not only the content being showed in the theatres that are being censored. Even DVDs suffer cuts from the Board. How can the government dictate what I am watching in the privacy of my home?"

The Board had insisted on Banerjee cutting out a scene showing nudity and blurring a sex scene in the filmmaker's 2010 release Love Sex aur

"Cutting out that scene didn't hurt because the film was not about showing nudity. What did hurt was cutting out a line where one character calls another 'Chhoti jaat ke kutte'. The character who was saying that line was an intolerant fundamentalist and it was necessary for him to speak that language. When films show regressive item numbers no one objects. Only when you want to show the truth about India, control steps in," says Banerjee.

The "sentiments of the masses" is an oft-used Censor Board tool while recommending change in content or withholding certification necessary for a film to be released.

"No one wants to curb a filmmaker's creative freedom. But we have to be careful what message we are passing to the youth. One can't allow vulgarity or language that can be interpreted in a wrong way," reasons new Censor Board chief Nihalani.

The yesteryear film producer's attempt at taking a moral high-ground might strike many as ironic, considering that Nihalani has been known to fund movies such as Shola aur Shabnam, Aankhen and Andaz, which many would have a problem with. With the best of intentions, however, the Board at times has been known to falter in its 'safeguarding" responsibilities. How else does one justify the protests against PK, for allegedly hurting the religious sentiments of a section of the population, after it was released with Censor Board clearance.

On the other hand, years of adherence to the Board's whim has made many averse to its very existence.

"There should be no censorship. Not even a government ratings board because even that provides scope for favouritism and power-play," says author Arnab Ray, better identified by his Twitter handle, the Greatbong.

Others aware that this kind of a scenario might be mere wishful thinking, propose a more modest alternative. After years of having faced the Board's conditional permission to releasing their films, the fraternity would now like to see the Board adhering to certain riders.

"I feel that based on the sensibility of the film, the members censoring that film should be appointed. Also there should be a certain criteria for choosing members," says Adajania.

Adds film analyst Komal Nahta, "It is time to revisit the guidelines for certification. Members need to be trained to interpret the law in spirit."

Most would like to restrict the job of the Board to certifying rather than having any control over content. One of the supporters for a certification-only Board, critic and author Mayank Shekhar admits that this might result in filmmakers going overboard, but argues, "Let the audience decide how to respond. If it hurts anyone's sentiments, let them take to the streets in protest, let them move court. If there is vandalism, there is a system of law to check that."

Then there is the grouse of the Board denying the desi audience the chance to view some eagerly-awaited international films. Take the case of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Indians were denied permission to watch the film after the Board banned it reportedly for its adult scenes of rape and torture.

Meanwhile, though the verdict is still out on whether MSG results in unrest in the country, a few have already been heard expressing pain to their aesthetic sentiments by having to see the moustachioed and bearded Godman in his tight t-shirt-sporting avatar.

First Published: Jan 25, 2015 12:16 IST