Daniel Craig. Photo: AFP
Daniel Craig. Photo: AFP

Time to censor the censor board?

Kissing scenes from the upcoming James Bond film 'Spectre' had been cut short as the censor board chief found them just a tad too long

That Pahlaj Nihlani, film director and chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, does not like cuss words is old news. After all, soon after taking over as the censor board chief, he circulated a list of words that were not to be allowed in films. Now, it turns out Nihlani has a problem with kisses too, specifically long ones.

On 18 November, it was revealed that kissing scenes from the upcoming James Bond film Spectre had been cut short as the censor board chief found them just a tad too long. Twitter, never one to miss a chance to crack jokes, exploded with the hashtag #SanskariJamesBond (Virtuous James Bond) with tweets about make in India, not make out’ doing the rounds. This is not the first time that the censor board has acted as the custodian of the public’s morality, taking decision on scenes and movies that it feels will offend the sensibilities of the movie going public. Fifty Shades of Grey, the film based on EL James’ erotic best-seller of the same name, was not released in India despite the studio’s voluntary edits to tone down sex scenes and remove nudity. Even in the past the board hasn’t hesitated from the outright banning of films such as Mira Nair’s Kamasutra to Anurag Kashyap’s Paanch.

The primary objective of the censor board is to certify films for exhibition and also to regulate their content. It was established under Cinematograph Act of 1952 which puts down very broad criteria for censorship such as not offending “human sensibilities…by vulgarity, obscenity or depravity." This has led to extremely subjective interpretations by different boards over the years. In a global world of rapidly changing sensibilities which is also hyper-connected and all content is available to all people, does the censor board serve any purpose? “How is the censor board even a democratic concept? How can a handful of people represent the diversity of views that people hold in this country," asks documentary film-maker Nakul Singh Sawhney. He argues that the basis for chopping scenes or banning films is often the personal views of those who sit on the board and adds that it is unfair to impose that decision on the movie-going public. The concept of a censor board was introduced by the British in order to gauge whether the Indian public was mature enough for western content as well as to control anti-imperialism messages. “The whole idea eventually was to control dissemination of information to a population that was seen as immature. It is akin to infantilizing and it still continues," says documentary film-maker Paromita Vohra, who finds the idea of the state deciding what adults can and cannot watch “ridiculous."

It is also very difficult to separate the actions of a censor board from the ruling political dispensation of the day since the board is appointed by the central government. It does not help matters that some members of the censor board eventually turn out to have little relation with the field of art and cinema. In fact a 2013 report by a government appointed panel headed by former Punjab and Haryana high court chief justice Mukul Mudgal highlighted this issue. “…in some cases being affiliated to some political, religious or social group, impose without restraint, such political, religious or personal opinions upon content permissible in a film," the report said. In the past there have been numerous shuffles of the board when a new government has been sworn into power. Most recently, the National Democratic Alliance’s election saw a flood of resignations from the existing members of the censor board who had been appointed under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The then censor board chief Leela Samson also eventually resigned from the post citing interference and coercion from the information and broadcasting ministry after the board led by her rejected certification of the film MSG-Messenger of God starring Dera Saccha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. The sect eventually announced its support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the Delhi assembly elections in 2015. Current censor board member, film-maker Ashoke Pandit, in a series of tweets on Wednesday not only distanced himself from the decision regarding Spectre but also accused Nihalani of behaving akin to a BJP spokesperson. “Censorship is essentially used as a political instrument by the state as and when it is required," says Biswajit Das, director, Centre for Cultural Media Governance, Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi. This is not just the views of academics who observe the system from a distance but even of those who have served within it. In an interview to The Hindu earlier this year, senior Supreme Court lawyer Lalit Bhasin who was chairperson of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) from 2011 to 2014 said Nihalani’s directive against cuss words went against the provisions of the Cinematograph Act. “You cannot knock out a kissing scene or a cuss word without looking into whether it is integral to the film." He said in the interview that political films were subject to a lot of censorship.

There have been demands in the past, from the film-making community, for India to abandon this form of censorship and adapt the US model which is more along the lines of self governance. The Mudgal committee stressed upon the need for guidelines along which certification should be issued and striking a balance between artistic expression and the social responsibility of cinema. “There does need to be a regulatory body to determine the viewing ages but beyond that it is not right for the government to step in and censor a film-maker’s right to say what they want to," says Jeroo Mulla, who teaches film appreciation and photography at SCM Sophiya, Mumbai. “The censor board never stepped into action during the eighties and nineties when movies were depicting women in the worst possible manner. Even today a film like Dabbang 2 has a song referring a woman as a tandoori drumstick and there is no objection raised to that."

But making the censor board defunct might be easier said than done. Arguments of morality are trotted out against such a move but Vohra says that the motives are always intensely political. “Sometimes the idea of morality is just a way to control dissemination of information." But Akhila Sivadas from the Centre for Advocacy and Research differs when it comes to the relevance of the board. “ We do need a board from an intent of certification; it is part of checks and balances of a free enterprise society." There have been times when the board has been forward looking as it did in the case of Deepa Mehta’s bold tale of two middle class lesbians, Fire.

“The board has not lost its relevance but it would do well to bridle the overzealous in their ranks," she adds.

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