Lipstick Under My Burkha row: We need to strike at the very heart of film censorship in India

There is a popular adage which has been running for a long time in India — that sense and censorship do not go together. It points an accusing finger at the Central Board of Film Certification’s (the “Censor Board”, in short) long history of imposing hitherto arbitrary restrictions on films and documentaries.

The Censor Board has earned particular notoriety during the tenure of Pahlaj Nihalani, whose stamps of “morality” and “nationalism” evinced utter astonishment and indignation of filmmakers and the public alike. Now, the Nihalani-headed board has added another feather to its cap of infamy, by denying a certificate to the film Lipstick Under My Burkha.

This action has evoked considerable outrage in the media and on social media, but unless the root cause — the provisions of the law which give untrammelled power to censors — are addressed and eradicated, one would only keep hurling from one instance of censorial arbitrariness to another.

Censorship — Pawn of patriarchy

That Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film with four women’s aspirations for a bit of freedom at the centre of the theme seems to have met with the censors’ disapproval. A glimpse into the contents of the letter sent by the censors to the makers of the film reveals that they have clucked their tongues and deeply frowned their brows at a “lady-oriented” film which depicts “fantasies” that are “above life”.

Film poster of Lipstick Under My Burkha.

Film poster of Lipstick Under My Burkha.

Moreover, they have directed their ire at “continuous sex scenes, abusive words, and audio-pornography.”

Depiction of women’s freedom have frequently ended up against the brick wall of the cultural censors, who are apprehensive of the entrenched patriarchal social order being disturbed. Ironically, they cloak their fear and disapproval under the guise of protectionism — seeking to curb certain expressions which, in their books, promote vice in society and endanger the position of women.

According to this philosophy, any expression on screen or in books which show women breaking out of the stifling fetters of patriarchy and all the harms and oppression it brings in its wake are unsuitable for public consumption, lest it ‘corrupts their minds’.

The Alankrita Srivastava-directed Lipstick Under My Burkha has struck a similar wall. That four women protagonists being shown rebelling against cultural norms is anathema to the censor board. That the film contains certain explicit scenes and some cuss words only strengthens the stranglehold of those legally empowered to lord over forms of cinematic expression.

Vast ambiguity, sanctioned by law

Contrary to popular perception, the heart of the fault lies not at the doorsteps of Nihalani or his cohorts, or who all will be running the censor board in the near or distant future. Rather, the root cause lies in the wide powers the law vests in the censor board.

The rules of film certification and censorship are governed by the Cinematograph Act and the guidelines under Section 5B of it. One look at these 18 guidelines will be enough to give an indication of the vast swathes of power the censors enjoy, and often use with merry abandon in order to ensure that films become slaves to their ideology.

For instance, nothing can be depicted which “endangers public order”, or which shows the denigration of women. Also, if scenes showing violence against women — such as rape or molestation — are germane to the theme of the film, visuals are to be kept at a minimum and no details are to be shown. The usage of abuses, even if integral to the theme of the film, are also prohibited. Thus, it is easy to see why Lipstick Under My Burkha has fallen into the trap of censorship.

Shyam Benegal’s recommendations are insufficient

Goaded perhaps by increasing outrage against the censor board, the government in 2015 formed a committee headed by noted director Shyam Benegal, tasking it to come up with suggestions for reforming the censorship mechanism in India.

Although the committee in its report in April 2016 gave some salutary recommendations, such as doing away with film censorship and having instead a process of film certification, and stated that the CBFC should not act as a “moral compass in deciding what constitutes glorification or promotion of an issue or otherwise”, a couple of glaring inadequacies remain.

And these inadequacies are enough to undo the very basis of the good work the committee has done.

One, the committee’s mandate was a limited one — to suggest a method of overhaul of the system within the existing legal framework.

Two, in recommendation number 5.2, it states that the CBFC should not get into censorship mode “unless the film in question violates the provisions of Section 5B of the Cinematograph Act, 1952 or exceed the limitations defined in the highest category of certification.”

Therefore, the Committee’s recommendations leave the guidelines — which go into the heart of censorious powers — totally unscathed.

On his part, Nihalani has defended the CBFC’s actions and rebuffed all criticism with the line that the Board was “only doing its job”. And it is not yet clear what would be the film’s fate before the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) were the makers to go on appeal against the decision of the Examining Committee.

However, one thing is certain: Unless the legality and constitutionality of the guidelines are challenged and their scope restricted, unbridled censorship of films shall continue to remain the norm.


Published Date: Feb 25, 2017 10:27 am | Updated Date: Feb 25, 2017 10:27 am


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