The unkindest cut of all: How Censor Board leads India's banning boom
We think of religious and political groups as demanding bans on movies. But an RTI application shows by refusing certification at the drop of a pallu, the Censor Board is India's banner-in-chief. But why did it ban the Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts starrer, The Mexican?
by Gautam Chintamani
A few weeks ago Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam faced angry calls from religious and some political groups demanding an immediate banning. Although the Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) duly cleared the film, the people who demanded the ban were convinced that some portions of the Vishawaroopam were insidious enough to spark off communal riots. Close on the heels of Vishwaroopam some religious groups found Mani Ratnam’s Kadal, which is set in a Christian fishing community and draws its leading characters from Jesus and Satan, worthy of a ban and then a Bengali film Kangal Malsa attracted the same reactions as it took pot-shots at Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal. Every political or religious outfit seems to have a reason to want some film or the other banned. But surprisingly the biggest culprit in the banning boom is none other than the Censor Board of India.
Principally the CBFC is a body constituted to certify films for public exhibition based on the category it deems fit to view but according to the information from an RTI petition filed by social activist Amitabh Thakur along with his wife, Nutun, the CBFC in the last decade has banned 256 films. By refusing certification the Board disallows the public exhibition of the film thereby effectively rendering a ban.
Many of the films in questions were refused certification at various levels on the grounds that they contained sexually explicit material and one can’t blame it if films like Yoga Teacher, Divya Teacher, Jo Andar Hit Woh Bahar Fit, Aaiyash- The Desire, Husn Bewafa, Man Not Allowed or Tu Ladka Hai Badnaam Gali Ka come up for consideration. Yet something that isn’t brazenly sexual in content but is a slight departure from the tried and tested runs the risk of getting painted in the same colors.
The Board objected to some Hindi films like Yahan, a love-story between an officer of the Indian Army and a Kashmiri lass, One 2 Ka 4, where a child-hating cop is forced to take in his dead colleague’s pampered kids, and Yakeen, where a man recovers from amnesia to realize his lover has surgically altered his face to resemble her dead husband. While Hindi films often challenge the ruling and manage to get through many Hollywood and foreign films don’t take this recourse.
So we can only scratch our heads and wonder why the CBFC won’t certify films like The Mexican- the Brad Pitt/ Julia Roberts starrer about a mid-level gangster sent to Mexico to retrieve an antique pistol marred in urban legend, or Doubt- the Oscar-nominated story of a progressive Catholic priest, Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose relationship with a 12-year-old student is questioned by the school’s strict principal Meryl Streep, or Snatch where a motley crew of colorful characters like underground boxing promoters and gangsters crisscross paths while chasing a priceless diamondor 8 Miles- rapper Eminem’s autobiography. One can imagine why the CBFC rejected a film like Showgirls- a no holds barred biopic of a small town girl who paws her way to become a top showgirl in Las Vegas. But is smoking pot and searching for the perfect burger to satisfy the munchies enough reason to earn Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle a ban? The entire world considers Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amorres Perros a masterpiece but CBFC felt the violent nature of the story wouldn’t be palatable for the Indian audiences.
It’s strange that the CBFC finds a Rowdy Rathore with it’s corrupt and misogynist policeman of a hero fit for public consumption but won’t even permit film festivals to screen an indie film like Divyadrishti, which depicted a gay policeman, on the grounds that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Indian culture. It might have been this very attitude of the I&B Ministry as well as the CBFC that made Shekhar Kapur call Asha Parekh "ignorant, irresponsible, arrogant and arbitrary" when she as Chairperson of the Censor Board (1998-2001) demanded certain cuts in Elizabeth keeping Indian audiences in mind. One of the reasons the CBFC has come under attack from both filmmakers as well as the viewers is the strange world it seems to operate in. The restrictions it imposes on artistes in the name of sensitivity towards the audiences somewhere suggests that it takes the very same audience to be complete fools. The Board prefers to waste its energies in pushing filmmakers to put disclaimers every time someone lights a cigarette on screen rather than look at the content of some of the more popular films it passes without blinking an eye.
In 2001 there were 19 films, all English, that were ‘banned’ by the CBFC but by the end of the decade in question 78 Hindi films, 51 Tamil, 33 Kannada, 15 Telugu and 14 Malayalam films were denied certification. While only 9 films were banned in 2010 there’s little doubt that the CBFC finds it easier to deny certification whenever in doubt. The CBFC is essentially a body that has to certify films for public exhibition but it choses to stop anything that, at least on the face of it, doesn’t fit in a pre-designated category. A little before the decade that this RTI petition covered the then Chairperson of CBFC Vijay Anand suggested an introduction of a new rating category that would allow certain films limited exhibition. Anand proposed the introduction of X-rating for films with adult content to keep a check on films didn’t fall in the purview of Adults-only certification but somehow managed to find their audience. Chided by most of his fellow board members as well as the Information & Broadcasting Ministry for coming up with such an idea, Anand resigned in dejection. In hindsight his suggestion could have offered a rightful, and more importantly a sensible, way out of sticky situations. The X-rating couldn’t have possible helped a films like Yahan but it would have at least initiated a process that could have spawned a change in the mindset of the CBFC. And while one isn’t suggesting that something like hardcore pornography or anything that is openly communal be allowed for public consumption but why should someone demand, and even get away, with a ban if the word mochi (cobbler) isn’t censored from a song in Aaja Nachle (Mochi bhi samjhe sonar hai / a cobbler’s mistaking himself to be a goldsmith) or the word barber isn’t struck out of the title Biloo Barber?
Say hello to the all-BJP censor board: Four Bollywood habits that won't get their nod.
What's good, clean, uncontroversial cinema? Maybe CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani's old films can tell us
Mr Nihalani may not be the Censor Board chieftain we need in these complex times, but he is the one we deserve.
The discontent simmering against the new, BJP-dominated censor board, has finally boiled over.