Things were looking up when the head of India’s Central Board of Film Certification was fired earlier this month. Pahlaj Nihalani had lead the CBFC to its most arbitrarily censorious phase in years (if you haven’t read my interview with him yet, it’s a doozy) and his replacement Prasoon Joshi seemed like he had the potential to move the board in a new direction. I remained optimistic, albeit cautiously so – these things don’t change overnight – but I’m not sure I’d have expected him to ban the very first film sent to him for certification.
Here we go again.
Punjabi film Toofan Singh was first denied release over a year ago under Nihalani, and has since seen release in several foreign territories. It opened in the United States earlier this month, and it looked like the film would finally see the light of day here in India. As it turns out, the new CBFC had something to say about that:
Says a source from the CBFC, “Toofan Singh is a terrorist, who goes on a rampage killing corrupt cops and politicians. And they’ve compared him to Bhagat Singh. The film is brutal and anarchic. We couldn’t empathise with its message of brute power, let alone grant it a censor certificate.”
The film is about the real-life Sikh separatist Jugraj Singh “Toofan” (the film’s title loosely translates to Cyclone Singh), a member of the Khalistan Liberation Force in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Bhagat Singh, mentioned in the above quote, was a Sikh revolutionary and freedom fighter under British India, convicted and hanged for killing a British officer. The politics of this situation are complicated; many would describe the KLF as a terrorist group, and referring to Bhagat Singh as a terrorist is considered a huge no-no (the trailer shows Toofan comparing himself to Bhagat, though I can’t speak for the film itself), but regardless of the narrative perspective, banning it outright for excessive violence when so many violent films play in Indian cinemas each year is an undeniably political decision. The 2006 film Rang De Basanti has similar and direct parallels to Bhagat Singh with young revolutionaries killing corrupt politicians, but it’s not the kind of film that would be axed since it isn’t based on any real life insurgent groups.
Whatever the politics of the film with regards to KLF separatists, whether depiction, endorsement, or something in between, banning art about complicated political issues prevents both nuance and critical discussion, not to mention the fact that it continues to allow the Indian government to dictate a singular national and historical narrative. I had hope for Prasoon Joshi, Nihalani’s replacement, and I still hope Toofan Singh is an outlier banned either for the precedent of its previous banning or because the Cinematograph Act of 1952 hasn’t been updated yet (according to some, Joshi believes it needs amendment), but it doesn’t exactly bode well that the first film presented to the new CBFC head was denied release outright for its politics.
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” may be a slippery geo-political cliché despite the factual truth at its core, but from an artistic standpoint, it’s hard to deny that empathy is vital to understanding any complex issue one hopes to challenge. Part of challenging those issues however is being challenged in the first place, which is why the censorship of art is antithetical to both nuance and free thought… but you knew that already, so you may as well watch the film’s trailer and see if it’s up your alley.
We’ll keep you posted on the Indian censorship situation if anything changes.