There are very few jobs in the world where a comparison to the Taliban could be seen as a compliment or sign of competence. The position at the top of a country’s censor board is not one of them.
In the last 10 days, Pahlaj Nihalani, the Chairperson of India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), has been criticized twice for being like the Taliban. On Friday, acclaimed director Vishal Bhardwaj, famous for his rustic and rowdy Shakespearean adaptations like “Omkara” and “Maqbool,” bemoaned the CBFC’s recent authoritarian behavior and wondered whether India was going to be turned into Afghanistan.
A week before that, Ashoke Pandit, a member of the board, wrote a letter publicly condemning his boss’s repressive regime, calling him “solely responsible for the degeneration of the CBFC.”
And at a closed-door meeting last Monday, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting (under whose ambit the CBFC falls), assured industry figures that he had warned Nihalani he was “hijacking the Board.” The Minister indicated that the Chairperson could be given the boot in the coming months.
How did things go so wrong?
In July last year, when Russia announced that it was essentially banning “swearing” in the arts, the world shook its head at the assault on free speech and creative expression. Works of art — movies, books, DVDs — that contained the offending words would not receive distribution under Putin’s rule.
Flash forward to 2015, and India, the world’s largest democracy, is following a similar path.
Nihalani assumed the post of Chairperson only in January, parachuted in by the government to resolve a crisis created after a mass walk-out by half of the board’s members. The group, including then-Chairperson Leela Samson, had revolted against the government for overruling their decision to ban a film featuring a controversial spiritual figure plugging his cult. People raised eyebrows at Nihalani’s close links to the ruling party, for whom he had even made a campaign video in the run-up to 2014’s general elections.
Soon after entering office, Nihalani sent out to his colleagues a list of things to watch out for — and ban — in films. This list featured 28 swear words (such as “masturbating”), along with items such as violence against women, double entendre, and referring to Mumbai by its colonial name of Bombay.
Predictably, the list evoked the outrage of artists in the country, with even CBFC member Ashoke Pandit questioning it. “This is so regressive,” filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt said to Hindustan Times. “Bollywood can’t be a soft power without freedom.”
Public backlash reached a maximum when the CBFC asked the makers of a recent Bollywood film, “Dum Laga Ke Haisha” (“Give It All You’ve Got”), to mute the word “lesbian” in its dialogue. The Will Smith and Margot Robbie crime caper “Focus,” received a release but not before entire lines of dialogue were chopped off due to profanity. The Examining Committee had problems even with the word “boob” in the script. “Fifty Shades of Grey” was refused a release not because of its sex scenes and nudity — which Universal had voluntarily trimmed before submission — but, again, because of its profane dialogue.
The CBFC, thankfully, has put the list on hold for now, but the storm hasn’t passed yet. The Asian Age claims to have “reliably learnt” that the implementation of these guidelines has only been delayed because the list in question is from 2003 and “incomprehensive.” The Ministry will seek the opinions of more groups and bodies, and add their suggestions to the list to make it “more comprehensive and less random.”
In an interview published in The Indian Express, Nihalani claimed that a good film is “one that can be viewed with the family,” and which focuses on the “story, the emotions and dialogues,” but not the craft. He went on to say that a film “should either entertain or impart values,” goals that can be achieved “without the use of cuss words.”
Such censorious behavior is causing repercussions already, with artists, producers and distributors realizing the futility of trying to have their works screened in India. Warner Bros., the studio behind “Focus,” has announced it will not pursue an Indian release for “Get Hard,” the raunchy Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart comedy. “[The film] will not be passed in the current censor environment,” said the studio’s spokesperson.
Such a stifling climate is cause for worry on multiple fronts. Chairman Nihalani must stop seeing the world in his image. In interviews and public statements, he cites his own work as examples of how to make films properly. Such myopia ignores the diversity that many would say is the best thing about art. His focus on the moral value of a film over recognition of its formal craft creates an environment that’s hostile to innovation in cinematic technique. What message would this send out to Indian artists who want to emulate James Cameron or Christopher Nolan?
Most importantly, though, the censor board should stop having such a low opinion of the Indian public. Their moral policing — which they justify on the grounds of protecting the masses from harmful elements, usually a euphemism for “Western culture” — operates on a misguided belief in the “magic bullet” potential of art, a naive theory that was disproved decades ago. Moreover, it dismisses the possibility that art that offends can be just as powerful and stimulate social change as effectively as art that “educates.”
One of the best-reviewed Indian films last year was Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Haider,” an adaptation of “Hamlet” set in present-day Kashmir. “Haider” not only refused to shy away from the Oedipal undercurrents of the original text, but also used its setting to criticize the Indian government and the army’s oppressive policies in the conflict-torn region bordering Pakistan.
It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that such an incendiary and daring work would find trouble getting release with the current censor body. Sure enough, Mihir Bhuta, a recent addition to the CBFC, claimed in the same Indian Express article that a film like “Haider” “shouldn’t be made.”
With domestic artists worrying over the difficulties of operating in such a stifling climate, and international players increasingly thinking of skipping India for exhibiting their work, the real loser here is the Indian public, who won’t get to see the art they have so enthusiastically patronized in the past.