Save for a couple of animated films, every English-language release I’ve seen this year has been censored in some form. That’s at least three dozen, and the cuts vary from entire scenes being excised, to the muting of words like “ass”. And that’s just on the Hollywood side of things, the initial impetus for the social media outcry that set this conversation in motion. I wrote about this back in February, and about the history and cultural context that made censorship possible, and later in June I penned a more hopeful update focusing on Indian cinema. Today I’m happy to report we’ve made concrete progress: the Winter Session of Indian Parliament, to be held on November 26th, will include a discussion on the Cinematograph Act of 1952. It was amended in 1959 to grant censorship powers to the Central Board of Film Certification, powers that have been wildly misused off late. Should things go smoothly in the Session, the Act will be thrown out entirely.
The CBFC has been losing more and more court cases, with films being ordered to have fewer cuts than suggested, or no cuts at all. My last update focused on Udta Punjab, a film about drugs in Punjab that was ordered to remove all mentions of drugs… and Punjab. It made it through with just a single cut, setting a precedent for films like Abhishek Jawkar’s Missing On A Weekend, whose characters use drugs in the beach state of Goa, India’s party hot-spot. Fear of losing tourism money led to the suggestion of fifty cuts from the “censor board.” Fifty. Ignoring the fact that this depiction would do the opposite of deter people, the Government’s fear was that characters swearing would also be an indictment. Jawkwar pushed back, and the film was granted release with just seven cuts, but even that level of compromise didn’t stand. He appealed again, and this time the decision was that there would be no cuts at all, and only one word muted. The film will be released on August 26th, firmly in tact except for the word “harami” (meaning “bastard”), and while that isn’t technically 100% clearance, the remaining 1% is silly. It makes the board look desperate, as if they’re clinging to the belief that what they do actually matters.
That’s where things stand with the board and its powers, waning away during their shameful final days. Its blades have been blunted, and will be taken away entirely in one hundred days time, when a new Cinematograph Act is enacted. The annoying smoking warnings will be before the film, not during, and the board will now only be able to certify, not censor. The categories for certification will also be expanded. U or Universal will remain in tact, with UA (Universal/Adult) being split into UA12+ and UA15+, and A (Adult) being given a subcategory of AC, or Adult with Caution.
Two new committees will oversee the process, with members appointed from the National Commission for Women and psychologists from the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. These being Government appointees is a (necessary) compromise for now, but it’s a vast improvement over unqualified demagogues cutting things they deem “offensive.”
But perhaps the most satisfying thing in all this is people continuing to mess with Pahlaj Nihalani, the brains behind this brainless operation. Kanti Shah, director-producer of sleaze-horror so artless that it can’t even be called exploitation, submitted a toned-down version of his latest, Ghost House, to the CBFC, but sent the original cut to theatres once he got the go-ahead. Come November even Kanti Shah will have the right to screen his garbage, which is the way it should be. While the board had the film pulled (after Shah wouldn’t meet with them because he was “busy”), it was egg on Nihalani’s face, so I’m going to leave you with his impotent statement on the matter, which is even more embarrassing than what he said after Spectre.
“It is an age-old practice to interpolate so-called sexy footage after the CBFC certifies a film. This is the limit!”
Art should be uncomfortable, especially to folks like Nihalani. After November 26th, Indian filmmakers will likely have the freedom to make it that way, and people will have the freedom to watch it.