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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  When you can’t say @#%*

When you can’t say @#%*

How the first year of a tough censor regime under Pahlaj Nihalani is pushing film writers to change their language and thought

Photo: iStockphotoPremium
Photo: iStockphoto

In October, writer-director Kanu Behl appeared in a sketch video by comedy collective The Viral Fever (TVF). Censor Qtiyapa shows Behl bringing his first film to a “Pre-censor Board", where directors such as Hansal Mehta and Vasan Bala tell him that all this cussing and extramarital sex just won’t fly. We love your film, they say. Just clean it up.

Like all good satire, Censor Qtiyapa cuts close to the bone. A couple of months before the sketch released, Behl went before the actual censor board with Titli. The film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and travelled the festival circuit from Chicago to Hamburg. Behl, however, knew that this would mean little to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and was prepared for the eventuality of cuts and an A-certificate.

Writer-director Kanu Behl. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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Writer-director Kanu Behl. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Just when Titli seemed to have got through fairly unscathed, it came up against the immovable object that is Pahlaj Nihalani. A producer of commercial melodramas in the 1980s and 1990s, Nihalani took over as CBFC chairperson in January 2015, after his predecessor, Leela Samson, and nine board members quit, citing “interference, coercion and corruption". Summoning the film-makers to his office, he told them that the decision of the revising committee was invalid, that there was no such thing as reducing invective by 50% (in an ideal world, one would agree). He offered them two alternatives: Submit the film to the revising committee again or incorporate the committee’s suggestions for the three scenes and remove all the other expletives. With a release date looming, the film-makers had to agree to the latter.

Behl wasn’t the only writer who faced this sort of humiliation last year. These last 14 months have seen an unprecedented amount of censorship, much of which has centred on the language used in films. In a scenario where an unofficial war has been declared on words, consider the plight of those responsible for these words. What does it mean to have exclamations, sentences, entire scenes you’ve written ripped out by a committee that’s following guidelines dating back to when “saala" was an unpardonable insult? Are screenwriters today starting to second-guess themselves whenever they put anything mildly offensive on paper? Are they becoming, like in that TVF sketch, their own pre-censor board?


In June of 1930, Donald Bradman, then 21 and playing for the first time at Lord’s, made 254. This innings would go down in cricket history for its utter chance-less mastery of an attack. Bradman himself regarded it as his finest knock. “Practically without exception every ball went where it was intended to go," he wrote in his autobiography, Farewell To Cricket, “even the one from which I was dismissed".

Once in a while, when the planets align and the literary gods look down benevolently, writers get to feel the same way: Every word goes where it is intended to. Good writers are compulsive rewriters, modifying, embellishing, agonizing over their choice of punctuation, syntax and tone. But once they’ve finished fiddling and are satisfied with the results, they like all the words—not just the ones that make them look smart or funny, but the little half-thoughts and interjections and grunts that are, in their heads at least, the bedrock of their characters’ personalities.

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Chaturvedi has a reputation as a writer who can say what needs saying without raising the hackles of the CBFC. In May, Piku sailed through the censors untouched, even the scene where Amitabh Bachchan declares that his daughter is not a virgin (the same word was almost deleted from 2014’s Finding Fanny, another film starring Deepika Padukone). A few years earlier, Vicky Donor became the first Indian film—the first mainstream film, at any rate—about sperm to open in theatres across the country. Today, Chaturvedi says, she isn’t sure whether a film about a remarkably fertile sperm donor could even be made, let alone passed.

Though its name was changed from the Central Board of Film Censors in 1983, the CBFC has never really thought of itself as a ratings body. Relying on the exhaustive and often vague guidelines of The Cinematograph Act of 1952, the board has always been keen to cut, mute, reduce and blur, even when it has rated the film as “A". Certain topics have always been, and continue to be, verboten: religion, caste, nudity, excessive violence and anything that might irritate the government in power. As a result, there’s never a time that someone or the other isn’t feuding with the CBFC. But all things considered, language seemed to be one area where things were loosening up.

This process began in 1996, when Bandit Queen landed on Indian screens with its Molotov cocktail of an opening line: “Main hoon Phoolan Devi, behenchod." It continued through such disparate films as Hyderabad Blues, Omkara, Ishqiya, Delhi Belly, Paan Singh Tomar and Gangs Of Wasseypur. By 2014, it looked like film writers might soon be able to take language for granted and start pushing other kinds of boundaries. Then, in January 2015, Samson resigned, Nihalani took over and immediately began with his mission of washing Indian cinema’s mouth out with soap.

From the start, Nihalani made no bones about the kind of moral approach he would like to see in Indian films. Asked by The Hindu whether he thought people might accuse him of being conservative, the then newly appointed CBFC chairperson said: “I don’t mind being called that if I have to serve the nation. You have to take care of the new generation, on whom the future of the country depends."


“I can see it has started affecting me. It has started affecting people around me—the directors I’m working with, producers, my writer friends. You still fight and stuff, but in your head, whenever you’re writing something, you think, yeh toh kabhi pass nahi hoga (this will never be cleared). And then you think, do I want to go down this road?"

I’m sitting in Sudip Sharma’s study, listening to him wonder aloud whether the CBFC’s actions over the past year are driving writers to self-censorship. In a sense, Sharma is perfectly placed to talk about the current state of affairs. NH10, a film he wrote about a Gurgaon couple stalked by a group of homicidal Jats, was one of the first to bear the brunt of the new board’s stricter rules regarding language. Sharma described meeting the examining and revising committees as a “fascinating process, provided it isn’t your film". “A lot of bargaining takes place," he says. “You actually find yourself saying things like, ‘Okay, if you’re removing the slap, leave saali.’"

NH10 was eventually released with 14 cuts, a list of which one can find on the CBFC website. It wasn’t just the spoken word the board had a problem with. A key scene has Anushka Sharma staring at the word “randi" scribbled on the wall of a bathroom stall. Sudip Sharma and director Navdeep Singh were initially asked to blur the word. They protested, arguing that the scene was integral to the film’s structure (there’s an echo, with “raand saali" appearing on another wall towards the end). They were eventually allowed to “reduce the visual by 50%"—apparently, a glimpse won’t engender the same moral corruption that a longer look might.

Why does Nihalani end up getting blamed for a decision like this? One reason could be his visibility; more than previous chairpersons, he is regularly in the news, defending the board’s verdicts. It could also be because, according to several people I spoke to, he’s made himself an essential part of the certification process. While his predecessors tended to avoid involving themselves on a regular basis, only intervening when the film in question was especially controversial, Nihalani is, by all reports, more than happy to be in the thick of things. In May, board member Nandini Sardesai told The Telegraph that the chairperson was clearing the big releases himself instead of allowing the board to do so. Several people, writers and otherwise, told me that while the members of the revising and examining committees were usually sympathetic and open to discussing cuts, the chairperson just wasn’t someone you could reason with. One person recalled how, during a meeting, Nihalani told him: “What do you new film-makers think of yourselves? I’ll tell you how films are supposed to be made. Just wait and see what kind of films will be made in the next two years."

Despite multiple attempts to reach Nihalani by text, email and phone, we received no response.

The CBFC guidelines are vague enough for a chairperson to impose his or her own value system on the decision-making process, if so desired. Nihalani has made it clear in interviews that he isn’t comfortable with the idea of on-screen cussing (“Normal civilized people don’t abuse the way we see in films"); violence (“The violence can always be suggested without bringing it on screen"); nudity (“People are paying money to watch [Sunny Leone]. How can there be tolerance for all this?"); and anything remotely connected to homosexuality—which has manifested in particularly indefensible ways. Early on in his tenure, the word “lesbian" was muted in Dum Laga Ke Haisha. More recently, in an unprecedented move, the board slapped the trailer of Aligarh with an “A" certificate, which meant it could only be played before other A-rated films. When asked about this, Nihalani said that the subject of homosexuality wasn’t for children or teenagers.

Amazingly, this wasn’t even the strangest CBFC decision concerning Aligarh. In a couple of scenes, the central character, a gay professor, is shown yawning and dozing off in court. According to the film’s writer, Apurva Asrani, they were told to shorten these scenes as they constituted, in the eyes of the CBFC, contempt of court. “It’s not even a ‘tareekh pe tareekh’ scene, where the character is challenging the court," Asrani says. “He’s sleeping because he’s just been harangued and he’s lost his house."

Writer-editor Apurva Asrani
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Writer-editor Apurva Asrani

For sheer strangeness, though, this is surpassed by a recent decision by the examining committee to deny a certificate to a Gujarati film called Jivan Sathi. The reason, according to a letter from the committee to the producers, is: “The end of the film shows bigamy, which is not as per Hindu Marriage Act." Even if this were a reason to deny a film a certificate, it shows the board’s double standards. Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon, in which the popular TV comedian Kapil Sharma plays a man with three wives and a girlfriend, was cleared for release in September.


Whether this particular censor regime is resulting in large-scale self-censoring by writers is difficult to gauge. One might have to wait a little longer, for films written in the Nihalani era, in order to see whether themes and modes of expression have altered significantly. The writers I spoke to all felt differently about whether their own writing was being affected. Sharma was one of the few who openly admitted to fallout; after his experience on NH10, he went back to a script he had written when, as he put it, the mind was free and without fear, and made changes to it, “taming it a bit, scaling it back". Asrani, on the other hand, said that what he had faced with Aligarh made him even more determined not to compromise. Behl confirmed increasing signs of self-censorship in the film community and said that while his first concern was to “let the film flower fully and be what it wants to be, there are more fears now, because you know what can or will happen. I try and not think about it. But it does play on your mind."

Writer-lyricist Varun Grover. Photo: Avinash Arun
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Writer-lyricist Varun Grover. Photo: Avinash Arun

Often, it isn’t so much about being driven to self-censorship as working in an atmosphere of vague, constant unease. Screenwriter and comedian Varun Grover says that he often feels the censors are over his shoulder, watching him as he writes. At the same time, he also feels that the censorship situation in India—pre- and post-Nihalani—often forces him to come up with writing solutions that are better than the more explosive ones he might have otherwise gone for. He gives the example of a memorable line from Masaan, in which an inspector tells Richa Chadha her life is over. “I might have written, tumhari zindagi toh jhaant ho gayi hai, but it wouldn’t have been passed. So I came up with, tumhari zindagi toh kandam ho gayi hai, which is a better line."


Chaturvedi talks about the disappointment that the current board does not seem to take milieu or context into account before muting language. “In certain environments, you can’t have sophisticated, well-spoken people," she says. “Go to Assi Ghat in Benaras; you’ll see that everyone there abuses—men, women." A week after this conversation, I found myself in the office of Chandraprakash Dwivedi, a CBFC board member who, coincidentally, happens to have directed an as-yet-unreleased Varanasi-set film called Mohalla Assi. Dwivedi, best known as the director of the National Award-winning 2003 film Pinjar and for his role as Chanakya in the 1990s TV series of the same name, joined the CBFC at the same time as Nihalani. It was his March 2015 letter to the chairperson that, when leaked, was the first indication that there were members of the board who weren’t comfortable with the list of expletives (including “bastard", “rakhail" and “double meaning any kind of words") that Nihalani wanted banned from all films.

It’s unlikely Mohalla Assi would be passed by the very board Dwivedi is a member of. Though there’s only a patched-together trailer online—one which Dwivedi disavows—the footage seems to confirm Chaturvedi’s observation that one could go down to the ghats and come back with one’s dictionary of abuses radically expanded. Though he reserved comment on the film, Dwivedi says he and “other like-minded members" had raised the issue of context as far as strong language was concerned in the second board meeting. “Per se, we are not against abusive language," he told me. “It cannot be a blanket ban."

In Dwivedi’s estimation, one of the biggest problems with the CBFC is that an inordinate amount of power ends up concentrated at the top. “The guidelines are framed in such a manner that it leaves a lot of scope for the chairperson to exercise his rights," he says. “But that also makes the entire process futile, because the decision is not by majority. There are nine members (in the revising committee), and if one member disagrees, it is referred to the chairperson. Now, it is the chairperson’s interpretation, his wisdom, to say yes or no."

There is, as Dwivedi points out, and as Nihalani tried to while being lambasted by Arnab Goswami on Times Now (“I’ve been waiting for you for a long time," the anchor crowed at one point), an option for film-makers unhappy with the CBFC’s decisions. They can approach the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), a statutory body set up under a retired judge. Films submitted to the tribunal when they had not been cleared by the censors range from MSG: Messenger Of God to Park Street, a film on a rape that took place in a Kolkata neighbourhood in 2012. Increasingly, this is becoming a go-to option for directors and producers with little faith in the CBFC. Recently, the producers of Vikram Bhatt’s Love Games went to the FCAT after the CBFC ordered them to make 18 cuts. The film was cleared. There are also unconfirmed reports that the Ekta Kapoor production Great Grand Masti is likely to go straight from the examining committee to the tribunal.

Even the writers I spoke to seem to regard the FCAT as a more viable option than the CBFC grind. Behl says he would probably take his next film straight to them. “We had considered going with Titli, but the release had already been pushed, so we decided against it," he says. Grover agrees, saying that taking a film to the tribunal makes it seem like more of a “serious case". Of course, there’s always the chance that the FCAT will deny the film a certificate, as it did with Porkalathil Oru Poo, a film about the rape and murder of a journalist by the Sri Lankan army, or The Textures Of Loss, a documentary on the impact of violence on ordinary Kashmiris. The only option then left is to go to court—a risk few producers or directors are willing to take.


Right now, almost everyone has their hopes pinned on a committee appointed by the government to review and recommend changes in the functioning of the CBFC. The presence of Shyam Benegal at the helm has raised expectations; the director has made it clear that he is no advocate of censorship. The committee even asked the public to send in recommendations—more than 6,600 mails were received through a website called Save Our Cinema. Yet, many forget that in 2013, a similar committee was set up under retired Delhi high court judge Mukul Mudgal. The report, which is available online, recommended, among other things, a more nuanced film classification system and clearer guidelines as to the appointment of regional officers and “advisory panel" members (who form the bulk of the examining and revising committees). As is often the case with expert panels constituted in this country, none of its recommendations were implemented.

In the end, all everyone’s asking for is a little respect: writers and directors from the committees that decide their fate; board members who find their decisions undermined by a single nay vote; possibly even the chairman, struggling to maintain the sort of moral absolutism that young film-makers today just don’t relate to. A little predictability would be nice as well: In the past few months, Spectre had its kissing scenes shortened, while The Danish Girl was released with frontal nudity. The sooner all concerned know exactly what they can’t do, the sooner they can go about trying to do exactly that.

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Uday Bhatia
Uday Bhatia is an assistant editor and film critic at Mint Lounge based in New Delhi. He also oversees the 'How To Lounge'/Culture section.
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Published: 18 Mar 2016, 08:40 PM IST
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