The on-screen version of the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Pathaan introduces one of the villain’s henchmen as an ex-SBU agent. The SBU, or the Sluzhba Bespeky Ukrayiny, is the Security Service of Ukraine. However, the original, pre-screen cut of the film announced the character as ex-KGB, a former agent of the erstwhile Soviet Union’s spy agency, the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which orders cuts and modifications to films before they are released, asked the filmmakers to make this change before it could be screened publicly.
In fact, this is just one of over 1,000 cuts and changes ordered on over 300 films across multiple languages (including English) that were cleared for theatrical release across the country over the last few months. The Hindu collected and reviewed the censor board’s data on cuts made between November 2022 to the first week of February 2023 from two of the CBFC’s nine regional offices (Mumbai and Chennai), to understand the larger context in which the board seeks changes to films.
In the case of Pathaan, for instance, the seemingly innocuous swap of spy agencies could reflect on India’s growing oil imports from Russia, even as the country balances its global position with regard to the war in Ukraine. It is unlikely that the antagonist Jim’s henchman being either ex-SBU or ex-KGB made any difference to filmgoers; the film has reportedly grossed over ₹887 crore since it was released on January 25.
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Beyond the brief
The CBFC routinely orders changes to movies: a toning down or removal of sexual content, violence, and abusive language, especially if the filmmaker would like a more favourable age rating (a U or U/A, rather than an A or S). Of late though, a different kind of censorship has taken shape, regardless of what a film’s classification is. These modifications go beyond the guidelines on the CBFC website. Instead, they span the government’s concerns on diplomatic relations, police overreach, political balance, religion and caste.
The Hindi dub of the Tamil film Mookuthi Amman (2020), a fantasy-comedy, was ordered to remove a reference to the “Prime Minister”, with a parenthetical simply saying that the use was a “wrong reference”.
The Telugu version of the Tamil comedy film Gulu Gulu (2022) was similarly ordered to remove a reference to “India Prime Minister”, with no explanatory note. In Pathaan, references to the PM and the Prime Minister’s Office were replaced 13 times with the more generic “Minister” or even with “the President”.
In the yet-unreleased Hindi crime fiction film Dil Hai Gray, censors ordered the removal of the term “government” itself, along with a reference to “Motabhai”, without explanation.
No legal justification cited
From the documents online, it is unclear what the context for a lot of these cuts is, or what part of the Cinematograph Rules, 1983 – which guide censorship decisions – were relied on for each cut. Individual examining committees list cuts very differently, and almost none that were obtained by The Hindu cited a legal justification for individual changes.
The Tamil film Sathuranga Atam was required to remove the word “beef”, despite it being legal to consume the meat in many parts of India.
No tribunal to appeal cuts
Filmmaker Onir, whose 2010 film I Am won the National Award for Best Hindi Film, said that the CBFC’s censorship has expanded in recent years. In the past, Mr. Onir recalled having recourse to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) to appeal cuts to his films. “But now, there are no tribunals,” he pointed out. The FCAT was abolished in 2021, a move that the Union government said was a part of overall reforms of tribunals in the country. Mr. Onir said that not all filmmakers had the resources to go to a High Court, where CBFC decisions can now be appealed.
In the Awadhi film Hari Shabnam, censors cut a scene showing a police officer taking a bribe. The 2021 Kannada film 100 cut out “naaye” (dog) from all dialogues referring to police officers. In the Tamil drama film Vindhya Victim Verdict V3 (2023), a line referring to a character as a “former IPS officer” was removed.
In 2017, a committee headed by veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal said in a report that the CBFC should expand its age ratings and give up its censorship powers for films. The Union government, which constituted the committee, did not accept this suggestion, and instead proposed a Cinematograph Amendment Bill in 2021 that would grant it powers to withdraw certification for films it had already cleared, a provision that had previously been struck down by the Supreme Court. The Bill has not been introduced for passage in Parliament since.
Pathaan wasn’t the only film that was steered away from a reference to Russia (the film also had other references to the country removed, according to its cut list). The Telugu film Geeta Sakshigaa also had to get rid of a “reference of [the] Russian president along with its subtitle,” according to the censor board’s Chennai data.
This year’s Sarla Ek Koti, a Marathi film directed by Nitin Supekar, was also ordered to “replace the references of Russia” in its film. The Tamil spy thriller Sardar (2022), on the other hand, had to replace a reference to China. The film was also ordered to replace a reference to the “Pakistan Army”. The Ayushmann Khurrana black comedy An Action Hero (2022) was also ordered to remove a reference to India’s neighbour.
Hollywood doesn’t get a pass either: in the coming-of-age drama The Fabelmans (2022), a series of anti-Semitic slurs were muted. Common Sense Media, an American site that gives parents details of potentially problematic scenes in films, says that the slurs reflected “shock of the antisemitic bullying and hate speech” that a Jewish character endures in the movie.
The Hindu reached out to Prasoon Joshi, the chairperson of the CBFC, for a response; none was forthcoming.