Taking Pahlaj Nihalani out of censor board won’t solve the problem

Nihalani is a symptom, not the disease. He brings out the worst of an institution designed to serve an archaic law that needs a drastic revision


Filmmakers including Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Zoya Akhtar and Imtiaz Ali, among others, demanded Pahlaj Nihalani be sacked and greater liberty be accorded to artists. Photo: AFP
Filmmakers including Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Zoya Akhtar and Imtiaz Ali, among others, demanded Pahlaj Nihalani be sacked and greater liberty be accorded to artists. Photo: AFP

As the controversy over Central Board of Film Certification’s (CBFC) suggested cuts to the makers of Udta Punjab raged on, the film industry displayed a rare show of solidarity on Wednesday. Filmmakers including Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Zoya Akhtar and Imtiaz Ali, among others, demanded Pahlaj Nihalani be sacked and greater liberty be accorded to artists.

Nihalani’s 17-month tenure has been packed with controversies as he continues to embarrass the institution he chairs Friday after Friday, though it’s only after the Udta Punjab row broke out that the rot became too much for the industry to handle.

Will sacking Nihalani solve the filmmakers’ problem? Probably not. Because Nihalani is a symptom, not the disease. He brings out the worst of an institution designed to serve an archaic law that needs a drastic revision.

The provisions of The Cinematograph Act, 1952 will not be acceptable in most liberal democracies. Sample this. The CBFC can deny certification to any film over this provision:

“A film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, the film or any part of it is against the interests of 1 [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.”

Were it to be enforced severely, it’ll be difficult for any contemporary film to escape this provision under the law.

In the last few years, the CBFC, especially under Nihalani’s predecessor Leela Samson, had been admittedly far more liberal than it ever was. It largely functioned like the certification body it should be. The 2012-released film Gangs of Wasseypur would not have seen the face of a theatre merely a decade ago.

But problems did exist under Samson’s tenure. Cuts were still demanded. Films did go to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT).

Apart from serving as a political utility to various parties, the institution is also peopled with individuals who have little or no sense of cinema aesthetics. Each successive government promises reform but unwillingness to take on protests from certain sections bounds them.

The previous United Progressive Alliance government had appointed the justice Mukul Mudgal panel in 2013 to suggest reforms. Based on the panel report, the government introduced an amendment bill but it never saw the light of the day.

The current National Democratic Alliance government appointed Shyam Benegal to head another panel. The panel, in an interim report submitted in April, made this suggestion among others:

“CBFC should only be a film certification body whose scope should be restricted to categorizing the suitability of the film to audience groups on the basis of age and maturity except in the following instances to refuse certification –

- When a film contains anything that contravenes the provisions of Section 5B (1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952.

- When content in a film crosses the ceiling laid down in the highest category of certification.”

Section 5B (1) is the provision mentioned above. An amendment to the law doesn’t seem high on the government’s agenda.

Even as governments keep running in circles, easy access to entertainment content from abroad, chiefly from the US, has changed the rules of the game. As this Ankur Bhardwaj piece in Business Standard points out, the Indian film or television industry has been unable to match the excellence of western content including Hollywood. An entire generation seems to have lost interest in Indian content even with sustained attempts to cover up this dearth under the label of ‘Rs.100-crore club’ or ‘edgy web series’.

At a time when the government is asking to Make in India, and with companies like Netflix looking to invest, to expose artists to a regressive, archaic law is short-sighted. To do this to an industry that pays the entertainment tax — a most uniquely Indian tax — and fills the coffers of the state governments defies logic.

Ease of doing business in the entertainment industry should mean letting artists have the freedom to say what they want in a way that’s not limiting. The Cinematograph Act 1952 in its current form can’t ensure that. And since the government is looking the other way, the onus is on the filmmakers to fight for their constitutional rights. Asking for Nihalani’s sacking must only be a beginning. Filmmakers will ignore a larger reform only to their own peril.

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