Movies lovers in India and advocates of artistic freedom everywhere breathed a sigh of relief on August 18, when filmmaker Pahlaj Nihalani — the censorious chairman of the country’s film certification body — was fired from his post. He was quickly replaced by screenwriter and advertising icon Prasoon Joshi. Nihalani’s firing signals a positive direction for the country’s relationship to censorship — but the chain of events has opened up several thorny questions.
India is the world’s most prolific filmmaking country, but movie news coming out of the subcontinent is often fraught with tales of censorship, bans and the public outrage as a result. According to the Indian Constitution, no film is eligible for public distribution or screening unless certified by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). To complicate matters further, the relevant Act in the Constitution (which hails from 1952) allows the CBFC to prohibit films that threaten the sovereignty of the Indian nation, its national interest, decency or morality. Over the years, members of the board have utilized the vague language in the Constitution’s text to get scissor-happy with countless films.
For example, India employs the controversial practice of adding on-screen disclaimers to any smoking scene that are intrusive at best, overwhelming at worst. This found no favor with Woody Allen, who back in 2013 decided not to release “Blue Jasmine” in India rather than cave in to such demands. This trend only worsened when Nihalani was appointed to the chairperson’s post in 2015.
Within a month of joining the body, Nihalani sent his colleagues a list of “objectionable” words that were to be censored in any film submitted for approval. The list included words such as “masturbating” and Bombay, the colonial name for Mumbai. It was a lost cause: Filmmakers across the country and some members of the CBFC itself lodged vehement protests that blocked Nihalani’s efforts. However, ad hoc decisions were still made with various films; the word “lesbian” was muted in a romantic comedy and the durations of the kisses in the Bond film “Spectre” were ordered to be cut down by exactly 50%.
During his term, Nihalani never shied away from the limelight and often spoke at length about the rationale of his decisions. The colorful nature of his statements only added to his infamy. When asked in an interview why the kisses in “Spectre” were a problem at their intended length, he responded, “This means you want to do sex in your house with your door open. And show to people the way you are doing sex.”
Perhaps the most well-known decision of Nihalani’s term as CBFC chairperson was the body’s refusal to grant approval to feminist sex comedy “Lipstick Under My Burkha.” In their letter to the film’s producer, they claimed that “the story is lady-oriented, their fantasy above life” and that “there are contanious [sic] sexual scenes.” (Whether they meant “continuous” or “contagious” has never been addressed.) The letter and CBFC’s antics attracted worldwide attention, the criticism of artists and film festivals; in a beautiful example of the Streisand Effect, not only did “Lipstick Under My Burkha” eventually win certification but also punched above its weight at the box-office.
Joshi, the new chairperson, seems far more progressive and less trigger-happy in his public statements. As a lyricist, he has twice won the National Film Award, the highest such honor in India. In 2003, a campaign he orchestrated for Coca-Cola India won the Golden Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. In past interviews, he has expressed a refreshing open-mindedness. (One example: “I believe that ideally we should have a society where no censorship is required.”) He is also generally admired in India’s film industry, where professionals respect his talent and experience.
However, Joshi’s proximity to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the biggest part of India’s ruling coalition — ought to raise a few eyebrows. He has frequently worked on their political campaigns. For the BJP’s campaign for the 2014 general elections, Joshi helped with the iconic “Acche Din” (Good times!) catchphrase, a message as integral to the BJP’s positioning as “Make America Great Again” was to Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign. Coincidentally, once the BJP formed the government at the center, Joshi was awarded with the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honor, for his “contributions in the field of arts, literature and advertising.”
Speaking with reporters in Mumbai after his appointment was made public, Joshi revealed that he did not “know how [the CBFC] functions” and that it takes time to understand the “whole process.” The credentials required to head a certification body are not amenable to bullet points, but Joshi’s statements make one wonder on what basis the government considers someone worthy of being appointed to the powerful post overlooking the distribution of every single film in the country. Among Joshi’s colleagues in the Board are several individuals with links to the BJP, some of whom have made inflammatory and partisan statements in the past.
In an ideal world, the CBFC would stick to its original mandate: certifying films in order to help them reach their audiences. There would be no need for filmmakers to fear cuts to their labor of love or for producers to be anxious about their release dates. Removing Nihalani is a step in the right direction, but a lot more remains to be done.