A Strange, Heated Interview With The Head Of Indian Censorship
What happens when you confront an irate moral arbiter with leaked censorship documents? I’ll be honest, this is by far the weirdest interview I’ve conducted.
After three months of American film festivals, the first movie I watched back home in India was Office Christmas Party. It’s a silly film that no one would’ve watched for anything other than its crass humour, and in that vein I enjoyed it – or at least I would have, were it not for some head-scratching censorship decisions by the CBFC.
The Central Board of Film Certification “recommends” the cutting of objectionable content. Producers often comply to avoid losing time and money over court proceedings (not to mention revenue from under-eighteen audiences), and while the CBFC doesn’t make the actual edits themselves, they’re the ones dictating what should or shouldn’t be allowed in Indian cinemas. Sometimes those decisions feel borderline arbitrary, and in Office Christmas Party, one scene in particular stands out. Well, more than one – the phrase “one second” was muted, presumably by accident, on two separate occasions – but let’s focus on the decision that was even more confusing.
Two characters argue over whether a vibrator is a dildo, or a body massager. This is their exchange:
“I want a dildo.”
“It’s a body massager.”
“No, it’s a dildo.”
Simple enough, right? Any Indian would tell you there was no way this would make it through the censors intact. Our “Censor Board,” as it’s colloquially known, objects to most sexual content, and sex toys are still illegal in India (Don’t ask). But what's even stranger about this instance of censorship is that during the exchange, one in which the same character uses the exact same word on two separate occasions, in the same exact context, less than three seconds apart, the first use of “dildo” was muted. The second was not.
That’s when I figured it was time to talk to the source and get some clarity.
Office Christmas Party was heavily cut up despite receiving the CBFC’s “A” (Adult) rating, i.e. suitable only for patrons above the age of eighteen. Our other two ratings are “U” (Universal) and the PG-13 equivalent “U/A” (Universal/Adult), but even an “A” still disallows plenty of content that adults ought to be able to decide on for themselves. This isn’t a new problem, but it’s been exacerbated ever since the appointment of Pahlaj Nihalani as CBFC Chairman in 2015.
I wrote about The Bizarre State of Indian Censorship nearly a year ago (with plenty of historical and cultural context, in case you’re unfamiliar), following the controversy over the length of a kiss in the recent Bond film Spectre, as well as the incredibly selective muting of the word “bitch” from Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The phrase “sales pitch” was also removed for some reason, among several other cuts that made the story incoherent. A few months later, the Indian film Udta Punjab entered the spotlight. Long story short, it focused on drug addiction in the state of Punjab, and the CBFC demanded the removal of all instances of drug use, and all references to the state of Punjab.
After an arduous set of court procedures and the revolt of damn near the entire Indian film industry, it seemed as if censorship was on its way out and a new system would be put into place in late 2016. Turns out we were overly optimistic. Now it’s January, and nothing’s changed. In fact nothing is likely to change, and we still have Indian filmmakers working within “moral” constraints, alongside baffling cuts being made to “A” rated American films like Ben Affleck’s Live By Night, in which the word “bitch” is muted, presumably because it’s misogynistic, but it’s spoken in an otherwise uncut scene of a man beating the crap out of a woman. Something doesn’t quite make sense here.
I got in touch with Mr. Nihalani via Twitter, and after some convincing from a handful of my followers, he agreed to sit down with me back in December. This ended up being delayed a few times, as these things normally go here, but I finally managed to get a hold of him this past week after what was probably my fifteenth phone call. When I went to the CBFC this past Monday (located in a building called “White House”), he seemed to have forgotten he’d scheduled the interview, telling me he neither talks to journalists in his office, nor has any time for them.
After an hour of waiting and a bit of insisting, I got him to agree to an interview of five to ten minutes. He talked for the better part of an hour. As I sat down to record him with my list of questions in hand, I made sure to hide the set of leaked CBFC certificates I had carried with me. The interview might’ve ended right there if he’d seen them, given his temper with other journalists, but I wanted to have the specifics on hand.
The first pages of censor certificates are attached to their respective movies, indicating their rating to theatrical audiences. The second pages however, listing the all the various cuts that had been made to the film, aren’t available to the public. Here’s one of the three I had on me at the time:
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Before we speak about censorship in any kind of moral sense, I wanted to ask you about the actual process of the CBFC when it comes to editing movies. Who makes the final decisions?
See, there’s no question of editing movies. I think the perception is very, very wrong in the public and in the media. There are three layers of certifying the movie. One is the Examining Committee. After that if there’s any objection according to the requirement of the producer, there will be a hearing. So it’s not that you can cut anything randomly and tell them “This is our decision.” No.
If it’s a digital release, that’s an individual person watching it on digital, where you’re seeing it alone or with your group of two-three friends. Today’s technology allows you to download and watch on your screen at home. You can watch it, but it’s not a public exhibition. If you’re watching in a public exhibition, you have to see that your content should be all right for the public viewing, and so because of that, rules are there, guidelines are there, and Act is there. Frame is 1952 [in reference to the Cinematograph Act of 1952] and it goes on the basis of that.
So it’s more of a suggestion?
But in that case--
And if somebody doesn’t like the decision, they have a chance to appeal to the revising committee. They can go to a larger committee. We send the picture to a wider committee. They may have missed some objectionable things the first time.
People say we are more strict compared to FCAT [Film Certification Appellate Tribunal], so in a higher court there’s always a chance. There are many sessions courts. High Court. Supreme Court. So that way, people have a way to clear the picture. We are not binding them or forcing them to take what we’re giving them, or doing a dictatorship or any ruling on that.
Does that not lead to a lot of delays for the producers releasing films?
They take that chance, and the media also welcomes them, because today publicity is very costly. But the name of CBFC is so popular, so people are just using the CBFC platform to inform people “Our movie is stuck.” We are easy targets.
In the cases of censorship where cuts are inelegant, or half-words are being muted, audiences already know what the content is, so you’re already putting the word into their heads. Does it not then just become an inconvenience for the audience?
That’s not our problem. Our problem is that according to the Act, according to the guidelines if anything is objectionable, the producer has to correct it. If they don’t have time to correct it, that is not our fault.
But then of course if they choose not to change anything, if they keep a lot of the swear words in their movies even with an “A” certificate, it won’t be released for public exhibition.
That is their-- see I’ve told you, there’s the first step, the examining committee. There is a second layer, revising committee. Then if [the producers] come with their own modifications, they can apply for a fresh certification with a fresh cut of the movie, so that’s also a provision. If they don’t agree, then they can go to the FCAT. After FCAT if they still don’t, they can go to court.
Previously there was a time, as per the rule we had to give the certificate within eighty-four days. But we are just clearing the film within ten days… That’s also an objection on their part, “Why have you given the certificate within eighty-four days? Why have you watched the movie before that?”
That initial objection itself, is that not removing an element of choice from both the artist, and from audiences who would then want to choose what to watch under a publicly agreed-upon contract?
See, that’s why the question has arisen today. For so many years people are used to filmmakers who are real filmmakers. They know the job, they know the guidelines, they know the system. They are not raising objections. Why doesn’t the media, who only review movies, just go and watch the movies? Why only criticize the film industry? They should learn, they should know the whole thing, what the movie is about also. Why are they only going according to--why don’t they believe the CBFC?
Why are they only believing the producers? Don’t go for what they are saying, you have to hear the story of both sides. See the facts.
I agree, which is why I’m here. To hear your side of the--
See the facts! What is the factual report? In my two years-- I’m going to complete two years. [In reference to second anniversary of his chairmanship on January 20th]
In my two years, from my side I have never delayed a single movie. As soon as they apply, we clear the movie in time. The only problem is with the producers. They are making such movies. They require a controversy, so they are cashing in on it.
Should cinema not be a space for intellectual and emotional and moral challenges? Why are we placing a moral imposition, as if to say this is acceptable and this is not acceptable, when--
No no, I want to know something. If we are better for following modernization and westernization, is there no censorship there also? There are rules everywhere, whether it’s the U.S., whether it’s the U.K., or it’s the Gulf, whether it’s Australia, whether it’s Pakistan. You see any country. Where-- In which country do they not have censorship?
The United States doesn’t.
No sir. I’ve lived in the United States.
They have self-censorship. They have a body.
They have the MPAA, which is not a government body--
No, no, no, no. The Government has rules it has framed, which is applied to each and every common man also. You have to watch the whole thing according to each country’s law, to see how to protect the people.
Of course, but then why are we comparing ourselves to the Gulf when it’s so strict over--
No, no, it’s not the Gulf. Australia is backward? U.K. is backward? Because there are systems there. In the U.S. also. In different countries, filmmakers have a responsibility. They are honest.
They are honest!
But in that case, if it’s a responsibility of the filmmaker to be honest--
And today, this certificate, nobody can challenge you once you get it. The court also doesn’t ask you when you get it. Then it’s a state’s responsibility. It’s a license to release the picture. 82% of pictures have been passed without any cuts. Nobody is saying anything about the 1 or 2% for whom it’s self-interest, who grumble. The media has picked that up. We are working very smoothly. Filmmakers are very happy, so there is nothing to be worried about.
Many times the movies we have cleared also, people take their objections to the courts and to the law, to ban this or that movie. Many states.
Which you don’t agree with?
Yes. Regional bodies, N.G.O.s [Non Government Organizations], they ask “Why are you allowing this?” See the picture. It’s a very clear picture. I’ll give you the example of Dangal. Now Dangal is cleared, and they’ve filed an appeal in the court.
[The Jai Ho Foundation recently took issue with our National Anthem being played in Dangal because it wasn’t shown in its entirety and at a consistent volume.]
The Jai Ho Foundation?
Jai Ho Foundation. On self-censorship, suppose this was a thing, they would have removed the picture! But they got a license. The certificate is a kind of license.
And you yourself said “Cinema is a medium of flexible, moldable possibilities” in your interview with Indian Express--
And today I’m telling you the same thing.
Exactly, and I agree with that. But that should apply across the board, shouldn’t it? Not just to nationalism?
As a filmmaker you’re protected, I will say the certificate is very important for the movie, and it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker when we are projecting heritage property.
The government protects heritage property, the Red Fort and other things. So isn’t it the Government’s job to protect Indian culture? Which is also heritage?
It is, but if we’re talking about specific monuments versus this nebulous idea of Indian culture--
No, no, see, it’s life! When there is nothing, it’s only the heritage property which supports Indian culture.
So are we talking just about physical monuments, or--
I’m talking about when it’s the responsibility of the government to protect them! So the same way, it’s the government’s job to protect our Indian culture.
And who defines what Indian culture is?
That’s the government.
And if someone disagrees with that stance--
No, no, no, no, no. That’s not my-- then go and fight with the Parliament. Fight with the government. I’ve got the duty to go according to the Act. If they want changes, I’ll go with the changes. I’ll give you an example. I’ve just tested the water in Befikre. It was a modern movie based in the Western culture of Paris. And everyone knows Paris is what?
[Befikre was in the news recently because one of its songs featured various clips of people kissing and a same-sex kiss had been censored]
The city of love?
And what we allow? One kiss in the “U/A” certificate. If we allow the longer duration of it, it goes to “A” certificate. So we allow what’s there, and we have cut many portions.
At least forty or fifty kisses we have cut, but somebody has reported in the media there is no cut. So because of that it has appeared that “Mr. Nihalani has become liberal now.” From sanskaari [cultured] he has become un-sanskaari.
The first thing is, sanskaar [culture] in our country is valuable, and there’s a respect for sanskaar. And I’m very happy that abroad, in the USA, they believe our Indian culture. They love our Indian music. The have seen all modern and western film there, why are they watching our movies? Why is Dangal a hit there? Because it’s Indian culture. Why is Sultan a hit? Because it’s Indian culture.
In that sense should we not also have unfiltered access to American culture--
Because we want to see our icons in our Indian culture.
Don’t we also want to see western icons unfiltered?
There are English movies. They are watching, no? Even their heroes are popular, no? As good as Indian heroes? So you don’t want that they should love them?
No, they should, what I’m saying is--
Americans, they are not watching Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. In the U.S. they are watching Indian culture, and in Pakistan they are watching our Indian movies. But the same way Indians, they are watching Rambo, they are watching everyone.
But if Rambo were to come out today, there would be at least some pushback from the CBFC in terms of the violence being portrayed. Is that not correct?
See, we are doing our job. We don’t want to learn [our job] from the media or from the people. Individually you can have something more modern. Individually somebody will be more westernized. He may not mind anything. But there are people, larger and in the majority, they respect their culture. They respect their values. They expect children to behave nicely in front of their parents. They respect their elderly in different ways. These are our values. Not just metro cities, but villages also. We are producing movies for India, we are not producing movies for abroad.
At what point does it become a matter of removing the element of choice from what Indian culture is and what it can be, and how it can evolve?
Whatever rules have been framed, we’re watching in that manner.
So at the end of the day the CBFC is a middleman between the rules and the public--
There is no middleman! There is no middleman, this is an authority. An authority to see what goes to the public. We are not dealing with anything that we’re the middleman. We are the authority.
Then a middleman in terms of enacting the laws--
No. No. No. No. It’s an authority! An authority to certify the movie for the public exhibition. It’s not for digital, it’s not for television, but it’s for public exhibition. It’s the public who pays the money--
He picks up a water bottle from his desk and points to the Nutritional Information on the label.
There is a system where when you are taking this water, you know what’s figured into it. You know what’s in there when you’re buying milk also, you know if it’s fattening. But in our movies, they don’t display it. They display if it’s a “U” or “U/A” or “Adult” movie, but they don’t display the contents of the adult movie. We have only three ratings. In the U.S. there’s also a rating system. You’re saying there’s personal censorship, then also they give you ratings. There are six ratings there also. So there’s an authority’s responsibility.
He points to the various empty chairs in his office.
When I’m on this side, I’ll talk like the media. If I’m on that side I’ll talk about the chairman. If I’m here, I’ll talk about the filmmaker.
As a filmmaker yourself, I’m sure you understand--
I understand everything. So I perceive things in a completely different manner. Your thoughts will be a different thing. Our views are different.
Of course, and I think that’s fundamental to any democracy, being able to discuss different views.
I bring out the leaked certificates I’ve carried with me. He doesn’t seem happy.
Finally I wanted to ask, there seems to be a lot of room for misinterpreting and misunderstanding what’s actually being removed from the films. For example, on the certificate of XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, which just came out--
See, you don’t go by the detail of [the certificate]. This is between the filmmakers or the distributors. In what reference has this word been removed?
I’ve seen the film, so I wanted to ask--
I have not seen the film, so I can’t discuss it. Because one word can change the meaning.
Which is why I wanted to ask, when it says here “Deleted the visuals of girl pouring liquor,” I understand that you don’t want to show liquor being poured--
See, I can’t discuss this picture on an individual level, because I have not seen the movie.
Okay, but if I may--
No. When it has been cut, the producer has agreed. So he knows the thing, otherwise he would’ve gone [to appeal].
My only question sir, if you’ll let me finish it, is if we’re asking a visual of a girl pouring liquor be deleted, but in the film it’s specified she’s pouring cranberry juice and club soda--
So that’s not a…
The realization of what I’ve just asked him sets in. Out comes the temper I’d heard so much about.
In what context? In reference to what? I have not seen it. I can’t discuss. And you are asking me the question? You should ask the producer! You ask them why it has been cut. Why have they agreed to this? If they have agreed, that means there was an objection, and they have agreed. Otherwise it was open for them to go accept another certificate, or go to the revising committee.
For La La Land, we were giving them the “U/A” certificate. He said “No, I want the ‘A’ certificate!” That is not our problem. I’ll show you the letter.
He buzzes in his assistant and asks him to retrieve the file for La La Land.
Thank you very much, this is helpful.
So nothing is in our hands. Your demand is different, my requirement is different.
So at the end of the day, it’s up to the producers to make the final decision?
YOU are middlemen. You are interfering without any reason in our business.
As in, the press?
Yes. Because it’s between two parties. He’s accepting, and you’re asking why? So I should be asking you.
Is there not pressure on the producers to accept this?
No, not at all.
But then you yourself said if they don’t, even with an “A” certificate--
That is the-- I said, when I cooperate with them and the media is also reporting on it. On Saturday, they have not applied, the Hollywood people [In reference to distributors of XXX: The Return of Xander Cage]. I have supported them on a Saturday, I have opened the office on a closed day, I have supported them and given them the certificate. The CBFC works for the producers. So why are you people carrying wrong stories?
Then what do you see as the press’ responsibility in this conversation between the CBFC and producers? Do we not have a role at all, or is it our role to get both sides?
See, it’s a completely-- I don’t know, today it’s the CBFC in the limelight, to see what we’re cutting. For many years. Many pictures, like religious pictures and so forth have been banned and not released. So nobody has asked-- one movie, Candle. Nobody has asked where that movie is?
Sant darshan, all the Badrinath Yatra [in reference to Hindu pilgrimages], it has been covered in all the temples. Censor Board at the time told [the filmmaker] to bring the N.O.C. [No Objection Certificate] from the temples, and he couldn’t. He has shot the movie, but he couldn’t bring the N.O.C.
Nihalani is correct, in that there are no media reports about a movie named Candle being banned. There is also no record of any film with the word “Candle” in the title being banned by the CBFC, per the CBFC’s own website.
He shot it illegally without their permission?
Yes, so it has not been released. The media’s role was not there. Today there is no…
He trails off for a second.
Content! This is content. [The media] gets it, and they get a boost.
I’m sure you’ve not seen all the films that have been certified, but there are certain instances--
I don’t see any, I just make them go through the examining committee. I don’t see a single movie, because as per rules I can’t see any movie. Okay?
When the picture is not cleared or the producer wants to go through a second step, the revising committee, if no board member is available, then I can see the movie if I want. In two years, only one hundred and fifty movies have gone on to the revising committee. Out of those one hundred and fifty movies, I must have seen thirty.
Do you feel as if all this flak that’s being directed at the CBFC, the “censor board,” it’s then unfairly falling on you?
I’m the head of the thing! Today any accident happens in the railways, who is responsible? The head? Though the accident has been made by the driver, with his mistake or anyone’s mistake, but the people are blaming [the head]. “Resign!”
Then let me ask: who should I ask, specifically, if within a particular film a word is asked to be removed, but five seconds later the same word is not removed? There seems to be a disconnect.
See it’s completely, I told you, on the particular dialogue. Now you are talking to me… if I use an expression you will not like, the same word I can tell you in good taste, in a good way.
Context, right. But in this particular instance, and I know you probably haven’t seen the film Office Christmas Party, there was a reference to a vibrator--
He’s uncomfortable at the mere mention of it.
See, I don’t see the movie, I can’t comment on individual particulars--
Sure, but it was in reference to--
I can’t. The only thing is this: what you are objecting to, you have read somewhere?
No sir, I’ve seen the film.
That is your point of view, no? You think yourself. What you are allowed to see, you see that. That content of the movie, it is right or wrong. What has been cut, don’t go on that. See the total content you’re allowed to see.
So even phrases like--
We are giving you, to watch in the cinema hall, what we have cleared. So you focus on that cleared thing. What’s missing, that is not your job. That is the job of the producer.
Is it not our job to at least ask why specific phrases like “sales pitch” and “one second” were removed from films?
See that is, I’ve told you, that’s between the… you are not a filmmaker! You are allowed to see what we certify. That is your job, to see the movie, whether the picture is good or bad.
Then where does transparency of the process come into play?
It’s a completely transparent process! I say to [the filmmakers], whatever you’re doing, I’m watching. I am watching, I will raise the objections if I have them. Acceptance--
I show him the leaked certificates again.
These certificates, where can they be found?
He ignores them.
Acceptance is the producer’s job, whether he accepts it or not. He has to decide. And they are open. They’re not bound to accept what we are saying. So that matter ends there.
And in the interest of transparency, these parts of the certificates that specify what has been removed, is that available to the public?
No, it will go to the archives.
Are those accessible to the public?
From time to time we send it. Yearly.
So after a year sometimes it’ll be made available?
It will be [in the archives] for a lifetime, we keep the record in our possession for three years.
So after three years, then what happens?
It goes to the archives. Anybody can see, it’s available in the archives. Anything you ask, they will give you.
So for any film that’s out right now, I would not have access.
Why is that?
That’s the rule.
I understand that that’s the rule. Why was it created?
No, that’s the rule. What the government has given us, we have to go for that.
So your job is enforcing the rules?
Before he can respond, his assistant enters with the La La Land file. Nihalani hands me the letter where the producers supposedly asked for an “A” certificate. As it turns out, it’s not from any of the film’s producers, but from its Indian distributor.
Would you mind if I took a picture of this?
Take. We are transparent.
Sub: LA LA LAND CENSOR RATING
We have received a censor rating of UA along with cuts for our upcoming title “La La Land” releasing in English (2D) on 16th December 2016. Although the film is expected to win several of the top awards we have a small budget allocated for this title. We will need to make the necessary cuts in Hollywood, the cost of which is very high and not possible to bear for this title. Therefore we would appreciate if the rating could be revised to “UA” with no cuts. If that is not possible we are willing to accept a clear “A” rating.
Looking forward to your positive response.”
What this says here is they requested a “U/A” without cuts.
“U/A”? No. “A” without cuts.
“A” without cuts, yes, but--
We have given them “U/A.”
Right, but with cuts.
With two. Two or three cuts. But he wanted without. We only gave them two cuts. They didn’t want two cuts.
The page adjacent to the letter lists the two requested cuts.
May I see what cuts were made?
That I will not give you. That’s confidential.
He slams the folder shut. So much for transparency.
If I recall, the F-word was said once.
I don’t know anything. They’ve gone in for an “Adult” movie. What you have seen, it’s not an “Adult” picture, but they wanted an “Adult” picture certificate. We can’t help it. So who is at fault now?
Media is asking us the questions, I told you what I told you in the beginning. If something is there, we will give the cuts. Only two cuts we gave them. And they want “Adult” picture on their own.
Which of course is something they said they could not afford to do.
So that is their…
That is not my problem. Our people said it’s a “U/A” with cut, they applied for “U/A” and we gave them “U/A” certificate.
But with cuts.
And they say “we don’t want any cut, give us the ‘A’ certificate.” So who is to blame?
I don’t know if I can really answer that.
So why? Why you have, then, questions with you?
To ascertain your perspective.
If you are not so intelligent, why are you questioning?
I consider my response carefully, but I know the interview is pretty much over.
If you’d like me to answer, I would say that it sounds like you’re putting pressure on them to curtail their rights as artists--
Anyway, anyway. Thank you.
He gestures towards the door.
Now please go.