Film producer Pahlaj Nihalani, a self-confessed Narendra Modi fan, is in the news again after a list of 28 cuss words devised by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) was leaked on social media. This list of 13 English and 15 Hindi words embarrassed the government, and Bollywood filmmakers saw in it another version of Swacch Bharat Abhiyan.
The controversy comes days after similar cuss words in the AIB Roast show offended many; yet, the video uploaded on YouTube had amassed over 4 million hits in a short span before it was removed voluntarily by AIB’s team of stand-up comedians. Defending himself, Mr. Nihalani, whose own body of work consists of Hindi masala films with all the intrinsic bawdiness, said the cuss words list was his attempt to pre-empt controversies, and inform film producers that they should self-regulate and keep these words out of their films before CBFC does it. He also claimed that this list of words was not devised by him, but was part of the guidelines issued by the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry, and it was his job to simply implement the guidelines, not formulate them.The controversy
Ashoke Pandit, another Modi fan whose right-wing views earned him a place in CBFC last month, strongly opposed the cuss words list, and said no Bollywood filmmaker would be able to make any realistic cinema if such restrictions are imposed. Mr. Pandit was the principal critic of the AIB Roast video, accusing it of being a “porn show.” Mr. Nihalani swiftly pointed out the dualism in Mr. Pandit’s comments — first against the cuss words and now for the swear words — and asked Bollywood filmmakers to approach the I&B Ministry if they don’t like it.
Shravan Kumar, the CEO of CBFC, was away in Berlinale when the controversy erupted. On his return, Dr. Kumar, along with Mr. Nihalani, met a group of filmmakers to reassure them that the CBFC would not play the moral policeman. Following this, on February 23, CBFC put the cuss words list on hold.
Now the ball is in the court of the I&B Ministry. The Ministry scheduled a meeting with filmmakers, which includes Anurag Kashyap whose work is freely interspersed with cuss words, in New Delhi on February 25. The Board’s move to put the list on hold is seen as an attempt by the I&B Ministry to calm down ruffled filmmakers who clearly see this as moral policing and an assault on their creative freedom. On February 23, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the maker of Bollywood’s biggest hits like the Munnabhai series, “3 Idiots” and “PK,” accused CBFC of asserting its power over filmmakers.
“This is nothing but an attempt to tell [the] film fraternity that ‘we are the bosses.’ How will banning such words help [the] film industry? If this goes unchallenged, soon a day will come when half of the theatre screen will carry statutory warnings instead of showing the film,” Mr. Chopra said at a film event.
In the raging controversy and war of sound bytes, what is forgotten is the fact that Mr. Nihalani is right — the guidelines were not created by him, and he is only implementing what has been formulated by the government.
However, at the root of many controversies related to the CBFC are the 19-point guidelines formulated by the I&B Ministry in 1978 and subsequently amended in 1991. It is these guidelines that an advisory panel member, who views films and certifies them, goes by while suggesting cuts or certifying films.
Under the guidelines, rule 2(vi)a. states that “scenes tending to encourage, justify or glamorise consumption of tobacco or smoking are not shown.” How the viewing panel uses this is completely subjective. According to a provision of the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act(Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution), the Centre had directed CBFC to make it mandatory for filmmakers to show a disclaimer during smoking scenes. Mr. Kashyap challenged this rule as “illegal, arbitrary, and unconstitutional,” but lost the battle in the High Court.
Guideline 2(vii) which states that “human sensibilities are not offended by vulgarity, obscenity or depravity” makes a powerful combination with guideline 2(viii) which states that “such dual meaning-words as obviously cater to baser instincts are not allowed.” Guideline 2(ix) states, “scenes degrading or denigrating women in any manner are not presented” — and all these would be applicable to the cuss words list.One issue, different decisions
Similarly, the clutch of guidelines that censor scenes or words that question national sovereignty and integrity, jeopardise or endanger the security of the state, endanger public order, or could impact friendly relations with foreign states were used to order cuts in documentary filmmaker Pankaj Butalia’s film “The Textures of Loss” which examines the impact of two decades of violent insurgency on Kashmiri people.
Mr. Butalia has now challenged the decision by the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) in a petition before the Delhi High Court. Apart from the cuts and their rationale, the petition challenges the very role the guidelines play, and also demands that they be quashed as they go beyond the freedom of expression right guaranteed by Article 19(1) of the Constitution, as well as the reasonable restrictions contained in Article 19(2).
Mr. Butalia’s petition draws parallels with Vishal Bhardwaj’s “Haider” — which was also made on the sensitive Kashmir issue — and questions why cuts were ordered in his documentary when similar scenes were cleared in “Haider” for mass viewing. In an unusual gesture, the Centre’s counsel tried to oppose the petition at the admission stage itself and were ticked off by the court.
This court battle is important for filmmakers who want to protect their creative liberties against unreasonable censor cuts, and directors like Mr. Kashyap should support 65-year-old Butalia in this fight. The legal battle will also be crucial as filmmakers increasingly demand that CBFC should be made simply a certifying agency with no powers to impose cuts. Unless the government rethinks the guidelines and its role, CBFC will continue to be in the eye of such controversies.