Fifty shades of reforms: Removing sanskari Pahlaj Nihalani just the first step, now end film censorship

Pahlaj Nihalani actually deserves our sincere vote of thanks. Were it not for his cringing worthlessness, we would've remained indifferent to an obsolete idea that plonks itself on the crossroads of artistic creativity, freedom of speech, the power of a society to self-converse and manages to stifle all these vital signs of a mature democracy.

There should be no space in the new Millennium for an outdated idea that is rooted in our colonial past, and we should be grateful to the bumbling former boss of Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for drawing our attention to it.

Nihalani, who turned himself and the institution he headed into a grotesque caricature, has been fired not a day too soon. He had only a few months left of a three-year tenure. Questions will be asked of the NDA government why it persisted with a fawning sycophant as the head of a so-called autonomous institution despite its proclamations of being champions of meritocracy.

Pahlaj Nihalani. Image courtesy PTI.

The answer isn't tough to find. The self-styled Narendra Modi chamcha was only a manifestation of a deep malaise that afflicts of our public institutions that are treated more as political fiefdoms than centres of excellence. The ideologues or party poodles who sit on top create a culture of toadyism and mediocrity, sap the institutions of efficiency or credibility and erode their ability to contribute meaningfully to national discourse.

In this, the BJP is as guilty as the Congress or the Left.

Weakened public institutions, whether in the fields of health, education or culture, inevitably fail in their purpose and often become subjects of ridicule. For instance, it is one thing to publicise harmful effects of smoking and drinking and create awareness about it and quite another to snip out such instances from movies or carry intrusive textual references during screening of a film. These are heavy-handed ways in dealing with issues of import and are quite often counter-productive.

Nihalani's travails have been documented far and wide. He took the word "nanny state" to dizzying heights and wanted to impose his version of "sanskar" on films by heavily editing out things/words that he deemed inappropriate.

It is tough to imagine a more regressive, prudish anti-intellectual at the helm of a cultural institution. He controlled the length of on-screen kisses, banned cuss words, beeped out the word 'cow' from a documentary, set the parameters of reel intimacy and inflicted random cuts in gay abandon without a care in the world about artistic freedom or creativity.

Interestingly, while he found problems with a "lady-oriented movie" like Lipstick Under My Burkha, refused to certify a movie which portrayed teacher-student romance — he let go untouched some adult comedies filled with sexual innuendoes and double entendres.

His actions were homophobic but he chaffed at the label. He refused to certify a Malayalam film that tackled the concept, gave adult rating to music videos that highlighted it, reportedly clamped down on instances in movies such as Aligarh and yet claimed that “we have no problem or concern with the gender of two people in love, as long as they conduct themselves within the guidelines that have been provided to us”.

It is pointless, perhaps, to blame a mediocre hagiographer for his idiosyncrasies. The government that indulged him should be questioned. It is heartening to see the ministry for Information and Broadcast repose its faith in an acclaimed professional such as Prasoon Joshi. The lyricist and adman brings to the table competence and skill that was so lacking in the earlier appointment. Smriti Irani, who has freshly taken charge of the portfolio, deserves credit.

Shyam Benegal, whose recommendations for revamping the Cinematograph Act, 1952, still lies in neglect, told IANS: "Prasoon Joshi is an excellent choice. He is a very fine poet and also headed one of the best advertising agencies. So his understanding of the medium is very good."

Joshi's colleagues such as Rensil D'Silva feels he will "be fabulous for the Indian film industry and for censorship norms in the country. He’s a very fair, unbiased man, with a good sense of the audience. He’s the best person to head a board that has lost its direction and to bring it back on track,” according to a report in Economic Times.

But therein lies the problem. The idea of film censorship itself is a remnant of an inhibited era. The creativity of the medium of cinema should be sanctified and institutionalized instead of subjecting it to the sensibilities of individuals. A mature democracy does not need a nanny state. It is inconceivable that we need the government to tell us what to watch, or not to watch during the era of internet of things. Censorship is pointless in an era of artificial intelligence. It not only restricts creativity that prevents society from finding solutions through self-reflection, it remains antithetical to the very idea of freedom.

What we need instead is a certifying body that will monitor, not ban or snip, adult content and rate it to be consumed by appropriate audience. In case of a dispute, it could be referred to a tribunal of credible achievers. To think that the state knows what is best for us is an idea that has run its course.


Published Date: Aug 12, 2017 02:11 pm | Updated Date: Aug 12, 2017 02:11 pm


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