Movie censorship

Pahlaj Nihalani has left the building, but censorship of Indian movies hasn’t

Filmmakers will have to be continue to be vigilant against more insidious attacks on creative expression.

Pahlaj Nihalani is no longer the head of the Central Board of Film Certification, and already, the world seems to be a quieter place.

On Friday, Nihalani was sacked five months before his term was to end. He was replaced by Prasoon Joshi, the advertising personality, lyricist and writer. It is hard to pinpoint the exact decision that got the producer fired, but it seems likely that he ended up alienating even his own Sangh-sympathising fellow travellers.

Nihalani’s list of transgressions is lengthy, but three stand out, and could be responsible for his exit. One is the centralisation of all decisions at the censor board, which is headquartered in Mumbai but has eight offices across India. Over the past few months, every file, whether significant or routine, seems to have been sent to Mumbai to get the boss’s clearance, causing to filmmakers to walk on eggshells till the very last minute before a movie’s due release. The censor board staff seemed to have decided that it was preferable to leave everything to their master rather than risk upsetting him by certifying a movie on their own.

The second factor for his dismissal could be the almost daily bad press in India and around the world that was generated by the censor board’s decisions. Foreign publications have been gleefully reporting the board’s irrational and arbitrary cuts, many of which have affected prestigious Hollywood productions and internationally acclaimed Indian films. These decisions have turned the world’s second-largest industry into a laughing stock, and reflect badly on the Bharatiya Janata Party as it seeks re-election in 2019. This was a relatively easy perception fix, compared to the intense criticism it has received about the recent spate of lynchings. By sacrificing Nihalani, at least one set of embarrassing headlines will disappear.

The third factor that possibly led to Nihalani’s ouster is the fact that he has alienated like-minded filmmakers. Even movies that were deemed to be nationalistic and supported the broad ideology of the ruling party were torched. A recent case in point is Madhur Bhandarkar’s Indu Sarkar, which, despite parroting the BJP’s line on the Emergency, was subjected to numerous cuts. The cuts were lifted only after Bhandarkar approached the revising committee. But he still had to make last-minute changes.

A power unto himself

Nihalani went far beyond the powers allotted to him by the Information and Broadcasting ministry. He wanted to censor films before they were screened at film festivals – which exceeds his brief – and was openly partisan towards certain filmmakers and actors on his Twitter account. He recently ordered that movies that depicted liquor and smoking would be given an Adults only certificate. Emboldened by the I&B ministry’s silence over his actions, Nihalani got bolder, even as he forced filmmakers towards greater timidity. Hubris usually gets its comeuppance.

The tasks before the ministry are manifold. It needs to consider the recommendations of the committee that was formed to revamp the Central Bureau of Film Certification in January. Headed by Shyam Benegal, the committee suggested, among other things, that the board move away from censoring films to merely certifying them. It recommended the introduction of an “Adult with caution” category over and above “Adults only”, and said that the board should refrain from banning films except in the most extreme circumstances.

The ministry also needs to assure filmmakers that Nihalani was only the most extreme manifestation of a larger problem: the state’s continuing interference in creative expression.

Though the Age of Pahlaj is over, the attitudes he so aggressively championed have not been obliterated. The country’s film industries, especially the most powerful one in Mumbai, have to ensure that they will not be co-opted into a more insidious form of cheerleading for the reigning ideology. The only positive thing about Pahlaj Nihalani was that he was a known enemy. The path from censorship to certification will not end with his departure, but will only get less obvious – and more challenging.

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