Bollywood lacks guts to fight censor cuts

Saibal Chatterjee

Apr 19, 2019 16:30:56 IST

Being ballsy doesn’t come easy to Bollywood. Playing safe is the industry’s favourite game. Barring honourable exceptions, Mumbai filmmakers, as a gutless collective, have perfected the art of studied silence, if not of outright capitulation, in the face of repeated attacks on their artistic freedom.

Their bloated blockbusters celebrate insuperable heroes. In the real world, however, they retreat at the first sign of a headwind. If that doesn’t explain their weak-kneed response to censorship, be it legally sanctioned or mob-driven, nothing will.

Mumbai showbiz mavens flinch from a serious fight when their own films face hurdles. Why wouldn’t they, then, look the other way when a small, independent film like No Fathers In Kashmir, which questions the official Kashmir narrative, is stonewalled by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)?

Film censorship works in bizarre ways in the world’s largest democracy. So, no matter how Orwellian it gets, we aren’t surprised. Yet, the fate that recently befell the Bengali political satire Bhobishyoter Bhoot (Ghosts of the Future, or The Past of the Future) did cause a flutter.

Written and directed by Anik Dutta, the film takes digs at West Bengal’s ruling party. Under pressure from “higher authorities”, it was yanked out of the multiplexes a day after release in February. Such is the dread of Didi’s displeasure in the state.

Thespian Soumitra Chatterjee and veteran actor-filmmaker Aparna Sen supported Dutta’s right to screen his film once CBFC had cleared it, so did filmmaker Srijit Mukherji and cast member Kaushik Sen. The film returned to the theatres only after Supreme Court’s order.

In contrast, writer-director Ashvin Kumar’s battle to release No Fathers in Kashmir (NIFK) has been a long and lonely one. CBFC ordered several cuts and still gave the film an ‘A’ certificate. Kumar argued that an adults-only tag would put television screening out of bounds and rob the film of revenues. Eventually, the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) granted a U/A certificate.

Bollywood lacks guts to fight censor cuts

Imaging: Shatakshi

 

Industry bigwigs talk of censor woes on social media and television panel discussions, and dole out quotes in city supplements of newspapers. Why don’t the industry’s high and mighty ever take a solid step — at least file a litigation against CBFC high-handedness?

Bollywood’s answer would be obvious: In India, where court cases run for years, a filmmaker cannot afford to invest crores into a project and then watch it lie unreleased because the case is sub judice. Rampant piracy would consume the film’s prospects and, if at all it finally released, it would seem dated.

In the case of small or offbeat films like NFIK, the challenge is bigger. A disunited Bollywood is no industry for dissenting cinematic voices. NFIK, about the Valley’s disappeared men, half-widows and their children, found no support from mainstream Bollywood, which itself is no stranger to pre-release quagmires. Many recent films as NH10, Udta Punjab and Lipstick Under My Burkha have faced CBFC roadblocks.

What is most worrying is that assaults on freedom of cinematic expression are frequently orchestrated by India’s ‘super censors’ — outraged political organisations, offended religious groups or peeved social outfits who arrogate to themselves the role of arbiters of culture and morality. The movie industry finds itself powerless to do anything about closing ranks against these forces.

What Bollywood ignores is the fact that, by running scared of their lumpenism, the industry only emboldens the moral police to continue with their disruptive tactics. The makers of Udta Punjab, led by co-producer Anurag Kashyap, refused to accept the CBFC’s order of 94 cuts. The film, about drug abuse in Punjab, was released with only one cut. It went on to be a hit, helped in part by its well-publicised run-in with a Pahlaj Nihalani-headed CBFC. Wage a good fight and you are likely to win.

Ask Kerala’s Babusenan brothers, Satish and Santosh, who have since 2015 made five narrative features and taken on the censors twice. The first time was when their debut film, Chaayam Poosiya Veedu, was denied a censor certificate. Their latest feature, Irutt, too, encountered problems. On both occasions, the Babusenans argued that the CBFC’s job was certification, not censorship. Both films were cleared without cuts.

In Bollywood, few have the stomach for a fight to protect their rights. No wonder an Ashvin Kumar is left to fend for himself while the guys with commercial clout — the likes of Karan Johar and Sanjay Leela Bhansali — seem to be fine with being pushed around by Karni Sena or Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Almost every time such faux ‘armies’ flex their muscles, Bollywood’s big guns scurry for cover.

In 2016, a few months after Udta Punjab registered a famous victory, Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil provoked the ire of the ultra-nationalist MNS. In the aftermath of the Uri terror attack that claimed the lives of 18 Indian soldiers, MNS took umbrage at the presence of Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in the film’s cast. Not only did producer-director Johar issue an apology couched in a vow never to work with a Pakistani again, he hurriedly tweaked the film to remove references to the neighbouring nation.

Ironically, even Bhansali’s Padmaavat (originally Padmavati), which extolled Rajput pride and reinforced the Hindutva notion of a Muslim invader as a debauched, gluttonous, meat-eating savage, ran foul of a ragtag outfit claiming to be the voice of the Rajput community. A mob ransacked the film’s set and roughed up the director.

With crores of rupees riding on their films, Bollywood’s big banners have developed a defence mechanism that allows them to ward off unwanted attention from the censors as well as street protesters. The strategy strengthens their disinclination to take a stand on issues that concern the industry. In Bollywood, it’s every man for himself.

But if you don’t stand up to the bullies, they will walk all over you. Sadly, Bollywood appears to have made peace with its vulnerability.

(The author is a senior film journalist, critic and film festival director)

Updated Date: Apr 19, 2019 16:43:50 IST

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