‘Saffronising’ the censors?

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:31 pm IST

Published - January 25, 2015 12:15 am IST

File tatkal nahi mil rahi hain  (File is not readily traceable).

These words can be found scribbled across a white board which greets visitors to the office of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in South Mumbai’s Walkeshwar area, where the Maharashtra Chief Minister, his Cabinet members and Mumbai’s wealthiest citizens live. The notice does not refer to any specific file, but is served as a general warning to film-makers trooping in that their film certification is a work-in-progress and that they should not expect it to be done swiftly.

That is perhaps the reason the CBFC’s approval of the movie The Messenger of God (MSG) in a record three days raised questions about there being a bias, eventually leading to the previous Chairperson, Leela Samson, and other Board members quitting one after the other.

“All the previous CBFC chiefs were bureaucrats, and they were very stringent. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was the first of us to be appointed in 1981-82,” says Pahlaj Nihalani, the controversial new CBFC chief, speaking to The Hindu . Best known for producing the 1993 Govinda-starrer  Aankhen, Nihalani produced a series of trademark potboilers in an era in which pelvic thrusts, and not item numbers, were the norm in Bollywood.

Saffron link BJP insiders say he has a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) background, and his strongest link to the BJP is that he is related to Shatrughan Sinha’s wife, Poonam Sinha. He was busy with the wedding of the Bihar leader’s son when his appointment as CBFC chairman was announced. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, in fact, attended the wedding in Mumbai.

The dramatic exit of Ms. Samson and 12 members and the swift appointment of Nihalani have raised several questions. Nihalani’s open admiration for the Prime Minister, whom he once described as his “action hero”, has also led to apprehension among a section of film-makers, especially documentary film-makers, that another phase of “saffronisation” of the censor Board could begin, in which dissenting views might be edited out. On social media, the Nihalani-produced Har Ghar Modi video, dedicated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the general election in May 2013, has been doing the rounds.

Ms. Samson cited “interference and coercion” by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley and his deputy, Rajyavardhan Rathore, strongly denied that. In media interviews, Ms. Samson strangely did not criticise the National Democratic Alliance government, but accused the Information and Broadcasting Minister in the previous regime, Manish Tewari, of repeated interference in the Board’s daily functioning through intimidation and humiliation.

Many saw a “saffron” hand at work in the Appellate Tribunal’s swift clearance to MSG featuring Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in just three days, which normally takes up to a month, after a revising committee had earlier refused it certification. The move is being construed as motivated by BJP’s political compulsion in return for the support given to the party by Ram Rahim Singh and his followers during the Haryana elections.

But reliable CBFC sources said the Appellate Tribunal was a fairly independent quasi-judicial body where it could schedule a viewing of a film if the producer approached it and minimum two tribunal members were present.

Though the swift decision came as a surprise to CBFC officials like Mumbai-based sociologist Nandini Sardesai, who was in the revising committee that refused clearance to MSG , a CBFC official said, “If the government wanted to interfere, they would have done it in the case of Aamir Khan-starrer PK . A BJP person influencing the decision-making is different from government interference. Government interference means either the Minister or the Ministry directly calls the shots. In the case of MSG , the tribunal members acted fast in their own eagerness to please the government. They wouldn’t have thought it would backfire.”

The truth may or may not emerge, but the timing of the exit of Ms. Samson and others like actor M.K. Raina, film-maker Shaji Karun, script-writer Anjum Rajabali and film critics Shubhra Gupta and Rajeev Masand have created a cloud of suspicion around the BJP government.

Documentary film-maker Rakesh Sharma, who fought a bitter battle with the CBFC over his film, Final Solution , on Gujarat, said CBFC members George Baker and Vani Tripathi had direct links with the BJP. Mr. Baker had contested elections on the BJP ticket from West Bengal, while Ms. Tripathi worked as the former general secretary of the party. Referring to the other present appointees, he said this was the first time that the entire panel had direct or indirect Sangh Parivar links.However, arguing that political appointments were inevitable as regimes change, film-maker Mahesh Bhatt defended Nihalani saying he had a reputation of being fair despite his political leanings.

“He is that ‘Bollywood producer’ for whom the high brows have a disdain. I can understand it if you don’t like his kind of cinema, but he has the reputation of being a fair man with workers and producers alike. His political leanings do not disqualify him,” said Bhatt, who has run into trouble with the censor Board during both UPA and NDA regimes.

Battle for free speech “Whether it is UPA or NDA in power, we have had to battle for free speech under every government. I have known Arun Jaitley and he seems to be a liberal man who believes in the rule of law. He should ensure that as long as his government exists, a film with a dissenting view is left unscathed,” Bhatt said.

On his part, Nihalani speaks progressively and stresses that the implementation of the Justice Mukul Mudgal Committee guidelines and digitising the certification process would be his first steps when he meets Mr. Jaitley in New Delhi next week.

Asked if he did not feel the censor Board had become defunct, Nihalani said, “If the CBFC had not been there, how PK would have been allowed to release without any major violence?”

However, many like Sharma argue that the 1992 framework of guidelines used by the Board’s viewing panels is itself unconstitutional. “The guidelines go beyond the scope of Article 19 of the Constitution in which the reasonable restrictions to free speech are enshrined. My fellow film-maker Pankaj Butalia has challenged it in a petition before the High Court now,” Mr. Sharma said. “The CBFC should only be a ratings agency, while second-tier arbitration mechanisms on the lines of a Press Council of India or Advertising Council of India which will have legal and constitutional experts should be created to decide on cuts.”

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