CENSOR BOARD REVAMP: IS PAHLAJ NIHALANI A BLESSING IN DISGUISE?

A person like Pahlaj Nihalani, who has always been in controversies ever since he joined the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), popularly known as the Censor Board, as its chief decision maker in January 2015, how can he be a blessing in disguise for the film watchdog that routinely exceeds its brief and goes on censoring films on flimsy grounds like we saw in the ‘Udta Punjab’ case?

But when we see the tough responses from the government after the uproar over ‘Udta Punjab’ censorship/certification issue and some snubbing remarks against Pahlaj Nihalani, we can sense something positive is about to happen.

If Pahlaj Nihalani’s term becomes a trigger for it, it will be a real blessing in disguise.

And if it happens so, it will be a much needed reform languishing for years.

India’s CBFC has become synonymous with controversies. The pace has only exacerbated with Pahlaj Nihalani at the helm of affairs. Sometimes he finds a children movie like ‘The Jungle Book’ scary enough to give it a U/A-certificate that requires adult supervision. Sometimes he objects to kissing scenes in James Bond’s latest flick ‘Spectre’. He finds ‘Aligarh’, a film on homosexuality, not less than an A-certificate. This is when legalizing homosexuality is a raging debate in India and the matter is in the Supreme Court. This is when India has had many gay pride parades in the recent past.

The list of Pahlaj Nihalani’s antics is long – including his botched attempt to show a five minute clip in theatres on Narendra Modi’s achievements. His attempts to insert the clip during intermission breaks of Salman Khan starrer ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’ failed miserably.

But CBFC’s controversies go well beyond Pahlaj Nihalani.

In 2002, ‘War and Peace’, a film by Anand Patwardhan, was blocked by the Censor Board as it contained 9/11 US attacks and nuclear-testing scenes. The board asked for many cuts. The board’s diktat was finally overturned by the court. The board banned 2003 film ‘Gulabi Aaina’ (The Pink Mirror – the global release title), a sensitive portrayals of transsexuals. The film has been critically acclaimed the world over but still remains banned in India. This is when India had already seen some brilliant films on eunuchs, like Kalpana Lajmi’s ‘Darmiyaan’ in 1997. The board initially blocked the 2004 documentary ‘Final Solution’, based on 2002 Gujarat riots, but relented later on and cleared it without any cut after protests. Filmmakers of the 2011 global hit ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ didn’t release in the film in India after they found CBFC’s demand of cuts unreasonable.

These are just a few major instances on how erratically our Censor Board has been acting.

Also, it has been an open secret that how money exchanges hands for a film to get the CBFC certificate. The arrest of CBFC CEO Rakesh Kumar in 2014 on bribing charges had created a storm. Many filmmakers then had come out in the open to speak how difficult and money-laced it had become to get a film passed through the Censor Board. The episode showed how corruption had become a way of life in the statutory body that regulates public exhibition of films in India. In fact, corruption in the censor board/film certification watchdog has become common to the extent that no one now pays attention to it.

Now if that Censor Board sees some fundamental changes, because of Pahlaj Nihalani’s illogical attitude on ‘Udta Punjab’, Mr. Nihalani’s term indeed would be a blessing in disguise for everyone who loves freedom of expression and feels disturbed over the bizarre ways of CBFC.

Information & Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley has given ample indications in this direction hinting ‘radical changes’ in the functioning of the film watchdog. His deputy Rajyavardhan Rathore had tweeted, “Certification only, not censorship”.

To cement the Pahlaj Nihalani angle here, union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, in a public snub, said prime minister Narendra Modi didn’t need sycophants. The snub came after Pahlaj Nihalani tried to portray himself as a Narendra Modi loyalist by saying that ‘he would feel proud in being labelled a Modi Chamcha (sycophant)’.

Also, a central government counsel told the Delhi High Court yesterday that CBFC would not challenge the Bombay High Court order in the Supreme Court. Later in the evening, the Censor Board issued certificate to the film. If we say that there has been a personal grudge on the part of Pahlaj Nihalani in the ‘Udta Punjab’ controversy, as the filmmakers allege, it amply reflects in the certificate issued. The certificate mentions names of two justices of the Bombay High Court who cleared the movie. The Censor Board had never done so earlier even if the courts have regularly overturned the board’s decision. Additionally, there have been allegations flying that the Censor Board is responsible for the leaked print of ‘Udta Punjab’ that is available on many torrent websites.

Pahlaj Nihalani was already on the radar. After a spate of controversies, the I&B Ministry formed a CBFC revamp committee headed by eminent film personality Shyam Benegal this January and its draft report is already in. To make matters worse for Pahlaj Nihalani in the ‘Udta Punjab’ case, after watching the film, Benegal had remarked that it was a ‘very well made and technically sound’ film. After the Bombay High Court verdict, he went on the say that the verdict should bring a paradigm change in CBFC functioning, i.e., as a certification body and not some censoring watchdog.

Hope this happens now. CBFC should be made relevant. The changes in its structure and functioning should reflect the needs of the times we are living in. Kissing scenes were controversial once. Now they are quite common even in TV serials. When we debate logics behind the ban culture country, from books, to films, to websites, to TV content – how can we follow this draconian practice of banning a film only because it will highlight a social malaise? We should, in fact, welcome such efforts. As alleged, politics should not be allowed to make CBFC a theatre of the absurd with hopeless credentials. After all, when we have the power to think, decide and elect our government, can’t we decide on the good and bad messages of a film? The government should have no role in telling us what to eat, what not to eat, what to wear, what not to wear, what to watch, what not to watch, where to go, where not to go – unless we violate the Constitutional norms – unless we break the law.

And for ‘Udta Punjab’ – the film is set to release tomorrow in theatres after clearing four court hurdles and CBFC. The Bombay High Court on June 13 had cleared the film with just one cut against Nihalani’s demands of multiple cuts including omission of references to the names of all places in the film including Punjab. The court firmly backed the film fraternity’s sincerity and its need for freedom of expression in choosing subjects of films. Yesterday it was in the Delhi High Court and today the Supreme Court and the Punjab & Haryana High Court refused to put a stay on the release of the film.

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

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