Prakash Jha has had numerous runs-in with the Central Board of Film Certification, both as a director and a producer. “Raajneeti had problems, Chakravyuh had problems, Aarakshan had problems, and Jai Gangaajal had several cuts, which were reduced after we went to the Film Certification and Appellate Tribunal,” he told Scroll.in. “People must be wondering why all my films have censor problems.”
Jha will be knocking once again on the doors of FCAT, which has emerged as a sanctuary of reason and calm within the Central Board of Film Certification. Jha’s latest production Lipstick Under My Burkha, a woman’s empowerment drama directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, has been denied a certificate on the ground that it contains deeply objectionable material. The CBFC’s letter of rejection has made international headlines for its tone and mangling of the English language.
Shrivastava’s second film after Turning 30!!! (2011) explores the intersecting lives of four women in a small town. Freedom from social restrictions is the theme that unites the characters played by, among others, Ratna Pathak Shah and Konkona Sen Sharma. In a previous interview with Scroll.in, Shrivastava was hopeful that the film would pass unscathed through the censor’s scissors: “I think we have to grow up, it’s really okay.”
The movie’s frank look at sexuality may have scandalised the committees that ordered the ban, but it has charmed film festival programmers. “The film is going to festivals around the world, and people are loving it and women are loving it,” Prakash Jha said. “But our CBFC thinks otherwise, they have their own morality and their own rules. This is a very beautiful story, but it doesn’t suit the board’s sensibilities and programme. We will do what we have to do to get it passed.”
Among the prizes scooped up by Lipstick Under My Burkha are the Oxfam Award for Best Film on Gender Equality at the Mumbai Film Festival and the Spirit of Asia Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival, both in 2016. The movie was most recently shown in the competition section at the Glasgow Film Festival, and it will be screened at the Miami International Film Festival, the International Women’s Film Festival in Paris, and the London Asian Film Festival in coming weeks.
The film was submitted to the CBFC in January. The examining committee, which represents the first level of certification, rejected the movie, in effect banning it. As did the revising committee, whose members included controversial CBFC chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani. On February 20, according to the filmmakers, Shrivastava was summoned by the CBFC and informed that they had unanimously decided not to pass the film. The chief executive officer of CBFC, Anurag Srivastava, did not respond to an interview request from Scroll.in, although he defended the board’s decision to the India Today channel.
In a separate interview with India Today, Nihalani too stood by the board’s decision. If the filmmakers wished to appeal to FCAT or move court, they were free to, Nihalani added.
Although the filmmakers had applied for an adult certificate, the censor board has been prickly about allowing grown-ups to listen to profanity or watch explicit moments. Under Nihalani, CBFC has stymied the efforts of filmmakers who demand an adult rating in the hope that even while they stand to lose box office business, their creations will not be bowdlerised. Even adult films face censorship – swear words are bleeped out, sexually explicit material is trimmed, and references to places, political parties, organisations, castes and religions are routinely excised.
The appellate tribunal, which sits in Delhi and compromises members appointed by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, has come to the rescue of several films denied certification by CBFC committees. For instance, Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor, about the love affair between a teacher and his 15-year-old student, was cleared by FCAT after a CBFC ban.
The tribunal also overruled CBFC’s demand to cut ten seconds from the music video for the song Miss You, by the band Friends of Linger. The 4.55-minute song is about homosexual love, and the offensive portion showed two men lying in bed. FCAT chairperson Manmohan Sarin and members Poonam Dhillon and Shekhar Iyer overturned the demand for a cut, which will allow the video to be shown on music channels.
In other cases, filmmakers have been forced to take legal action, as was the case with Udta Punjab, which moved the Bombay High Court after CBFC ordered numerous cuts and won its case.
The film industry has condemned the latest censorship row. Tweets from influential filmmakers such as Farhan Akhtar and Kabir Khan indicate which way one section of the industry is thinking.
Nihalani has been lenient on occasion – he permitted scenes of vigorous kissing and a flash of a bare bottom in Aditya Chopra’s Befikre in December on the ground that such permissive behaviour was in keeping with the movie’s foreign location (France). Efforts to dislodge Nihalani from his post have proven unsuccessful because of his alleged closeness to top leaders in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The latest controversy is likely to only strengthen his position as a moral crusader who is leading his own Swacch Bharat mission to cleanse cinema of evil thoughts and deeds. The filmmakers of Lipstick Under my Burkha have a long, and costly, battle ahead.