It’s tempting to mock Pahlaj Nihalani over 'The Jungle Book', but let’s mock the film censorship system instead

In the matter of The Jungle Book, critics of Pahlaj Nihalani would do well to take a deep breath, count to 10, step back and read this

Anna MM Vetticad April 11, 2016 09:08:11 IST
It’s tempting to mock Pahlaj Nihalani over 'The Jungle Book', but let’s mock the film censorship system instead

On most days, Pahlaj Nihalani deserves to be on every list of lampoon-worthy individuals in this country. He is, after all, a man with a track record of both stupidity and mediocrity, who does not deserve to be chairperson of India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

Nihalani’s statements, directives and actions since he took over that job have been bizarre, to say the least. He is the guy who released that slavishly obsequious short film this year with kids hailing a divine-looking “Modi Kaaka” as he meditates silently on a rock. This is a man whose filmography as a producer is exemplified by Andaz (1994) in which, after much orgasmic writhing about in a bed, Juhi Chawla springs up to prance around a human-sized train set while she sings to Anil Kapoor: “Yeh maal gaadi, tu dhakka laga / Garam ho gaya injun iska / Tu dhakka deta jaa (This is a goods train / give it a push / The engine is hot / keep pushing it).”

Its tempting to mock Pahlaj Nihalani over The Jungle Book but lets mock the film censorship system instead

From 'The Jungle Book'. Screen grab from YouTube

As you listen to these deliciously crass lyrics and watch the hero occasionally cup the heroine’s derriere in his hands, while they intersperse the suggestive thrusting of their crotches with the thrusting of their bottoms towards each other, it is hard not to feel utter contempt for Nihalani.

How can a reasonable human being not agree that he got the CBFC chief’s job solely because of his well-known devotion to “Modi Kaaka” and the RSS?

This, perhaps, is why so many people gave in to the temptation to mock him for his recent declaration that Disney’s The Jungle Book is a “scary” film meriting a UA certification. When his interview was published in DNA a few days back, the social media erupted in a storm of bemusement, amusement and ridicule.

This was before the film’s release, and before even press previews had been held in India, so most of those commenting had not seen the film. Their reaction clearly stemmed from the fact that Rudyard Kipling’s books on which the film is based are widely seen as children’s classics.

Besides, the international screen versions best known in India — the 1967 Disney animated feature and the Japanese TV series aired on Doordarshan in the 1990s — were carefree romps through a forest, packed though they were with multiple messages. For those with memories of both still fresh in their minds, CBFC’s decision regarding the new Hollywood film must have seemed like yet another obvious Nihalani-ism.

It is not.

And so in the matter of The Jungle Book, critics of Nihalani would do well to take a deep breath, count to ten, step back from their reflex actions and read this.

After all, liberalism means acepting that sometimes the wrong person could be right. The thing about art is that every retelling is an interpretation. And director Jon Favreau’s take on this beloved story is far more adult and grave than you might expect, with its chills further enhanced by the use of 3D. When the tiger Shere Khan first pounces on Mowgli and the panther Bagheera rises to the boy’s defence, the CGI is so good, the action so swift and the beasts so menacing, that it is truly a frightening moment, one of quite a few in this film. It almost feels as though Shere Khan is headed for a viewer’s throat.

So in this particular instance, as it turns out, we should heed Nihalani’s words. Within the constraints placed even on liberals by the Indian film censorship system, UA is the most apt rating for this film. It is a different matter that Nihalani ain’t no liberal.

The more important point here is that the rules in India do not offer a more viable rating option to even the most open-minded advocates of creative freedom. The controversy over The Jungle Book could be a perfect starting point for a renewed debate on the absurdity of India’s film censorship system per se, a discussion that will get lost if we busy ourselves with laughing at Nihalani who, for a change here, has said and done what most liberals would be driven to say and do after seeing this film.

Forget him for an instant. Let us concern ourselves primarily with our cinema and our children. First, it is a measure of the widely prevalent public view of the CBFC that it is popularly known as the Censor Board although the word “censor” has officially not been in the name since 1983.

You cannot blame the public for this misconception. CBFC, after all, is a statutory body that is legally permitted to regulate even what Indian adults can see by demanding cuts in A-rated films.

Second, CBFC provisions for film ratings are too limited in number. They need to be expanded, keeping in mind, among other things, that under-18s are not a homogeneous lot. At the moment, India’s film ratings system assumes, for instance, that the maturity levels of 17-year-olds and 13-year-olds are the same.

The present rating options in India are as follows:

U – for unrestricted public exhibition.

UA – unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for those under 12.

A – for adults only.

S – restricted to specialised audiences such as doctors or scientists.

Compare this to the better developed, though certainly not flawless, options used by CARA, The Classification and Rating Administration in the US:

G – general.

PG – parental guidance is recommended since the film may contain some material parents may consider inappropriate for their children.

PG-13 – parents are strongly advised to investigate the film before letting under-13s watch it.

R – under-17s not allowed unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 – persons who are 17 and below are not allowed.

CARA is not a statutory body. Filmmakers voluntarily submit their works to CARA because theatres — spurred by public opinion perhaps — prefer such films. The agency in turn offers an explanation for the rating granted to each film. Producers are expected to prominently feature the rating and the reasoning on their publicity material. The idea is to help parents while they decide whether or not to let their children watch a particular film.

The Jungle Book, for example, has received a PG rating in the US with this addendum: “Rated PG for some sequences of scary action and peril.” Parents who permit their kids to regularly view CSI or Game of Thrones on TV are very likely to consider The Jungle Book child’s play, but others may differ. The point is, well-meaning, responsible mothers and fathers may have different standards but they are all being provided with valuable details which they can use to make an informed decision in the best interests of their wards.

In contrast, here in India, UA is an umbrella that covers the entire swathe of ratings from PG to R in the US, without giving any specifics. What exactly does it mean? Does a particular film that has been given a UA contain implied violence or graphic bloodshed? Does it feature fleeting scenes of physical intimacy between characters or explicit sex? On a scale of 1-10, how fearsome is it?

What is a parent to make of the rating for The Jungle Book when you consider some of the other films that have been rated UA in India since Nihalani was appointed to the CBFC in January 2015? These include the Hindi film Kapoor & Sons which contained no violence, no scares, no sex, some very brief kissing and a vague allusion to a character’s sexual orientation through a conversation. The innocence of Kapoor & Sons has been equated in the same year with the extreme violence in the same film industry’s Jai Gangaajal and Ghayal Once Again, both of which also got UA ratings.

Over the years, long before Nihalani entered the picture, members of India’s film censorship system have displayed a conviction that it is better to expose minors to gruesome violence, crude sexual innuendo especially through the medium of song and dance, rape jokes and the trivialisation of sexual harassment on screen than to show them a mere reference to actual sex or let them become aware of even the existence of homosexuality. In 2014, for instance, the Hindi film Kick received a UA rating although the hero (played by Salman Khan) harasses the heroine in various scenes epitomised by one in which he laughingly lifts her skirt with his teeth, she is shown displaying her annoyance but a few seconds later merrily joins him in a song ‘n’ dance routine. Apparently we do not mind our kids growing up with politician Sharad Yadav’s attitude that stalking is a legitimate form of courtship.

In 2015, the Telugu film Bahubali was rated UA despite the hero being a stalker who assaults the heroine, an act of violence viewers are urged to accept unquestioningly since it is romanticised through beautiful music and choreography. On the other hand, Chauranga — a film in the Khortha dialect of Maithili — was rated A for a love-making scene in which the woman was a willing partner (the director was also asked to make cuts).

The CBFC alone is not the problem. In fact, the Indian censorship system is far more complex than the public realises. The first level of the rating process involves examining committees (ECs) at centres across India that watch, discuss and certify films. The Board is called in only when filmmakers contest the rating awarded to their film or cuts demanded by an EC.

In theory, the Central Government is supposed to choose eminent persons to be members of the CBFC and take their advice on the constitution of ECs since even a liberal Board can be weighed down by narrow-minded or cinema-illiterate ECs. This was a serious issue that insiders tell us hampered the work of the previous CBFC headed by Leela Samson — arguably one of the most liberal Boards the country has seen. In any case, successive governments have usually casually doled out CBFC and EC appointments as political favours, often to questionable individuals.

The only reason why the present CBFC has been singled out for particular criticism is that it marks an all-time low in terms of the artistic qualifications of its members and its chief.

Film ratings bodies in civilised nations should serve not as nannies for grown-ups but as guiding lights for parents. However, with the kind of powers bestowed on India’s CBFC, members of the central organisation and the ECs usually end up seeing themselves as guardians of the country’s collective morality. Their personal conservatism, their misogyny, casteism, homophobia and other prejudices then get reflected in their rating choices and scissoring tendencies.

The free rein given to the CBFC has resulted in a randomness that has been the biggest cause of clashes between India’s film industries and the Board for decades. This randomness has, not surprisingly, peaked under the present Board.

In December 2015, for instance, the Hindi-English film Angry Indian Goddesses was rated A but director Pan Nalin was still compelled to mute every single expletive used and the word “sarkar” (government) from a conversation in which the heroines discuss government interference in the private lives of citizens. In addition, he had to blur pictures of Hindu goddesses referenced by the film to celebrate woman power. That same week, characters in Hate Story 3 used the F-word and its variants seven times through the film — “fucking idiot”, “who the fuck are you?”, “I’m not a fucking coward” and so on — without being subjected to beeps. This was in addition to their plentiful bedroom romps.

Nihalani certainly has a lot to answer for, even if he is on solid ground in the matter of The Jungle Book.

The larger problem that he represents though, will not go away merely by removing him. What is desperately needed is a complete overhaul of the system that governs the CBFC, an exercise that must be helmed by liberals with a deep understanding of the arts.

By focusing completely on Nihalani, well-meaning film buffs are reducing this entire discussion to a debate over an individual. Frankly, their single-mindedness suits those who appointed him.

Because this is what leads to people jumping the gun and passing judgment on his comments about The Jungle Book even before they saw the film. And because even if he is fired, the regulations will not change with the person, and while the government is most likely to replace him with another conservative, the fact is that even ultra-liberals on previous CBFCs have faced ridiculous systemic constraints.

It is tempting to mock the ever-mockable Pahlaj Nihalani over The Jungle Book, but if you really care about cinema, please concede that he is not off the mark in this case. Deride him when he deserves it, but let us focus first and foremost on our system of censorship instead.

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