This is a big moment for Indian cinema, and for me personally. If you’ve been following along these last two years, you might recall the Central Board of Film Certification’s decisions about the length of the kiss in Spectre, censoring drugs and the state of Punjab in a film about the drug crisis in Punjab, banning a feminist film for being “lady oriented,” among a whole host of other decisions that range from silly to outright homophobic. You may also recall my bizarre interview with CBFC chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani in January, which ended with me being kicked out of his office. He’s been a thorn in my side and in the side of artistic expression here in India. He held the word "intercourse" ransom, claiming he would only restore it to the film Jab Harry Met Sejal if 100,000 married people above the age of 36 voted for it on his Twitter poll (after a poll open to everyone was cleared with ease), and he even recently announced cigarettes and liquor would be blurred out of movies entirely, in addition to the recent blackening out of partially nude bodies.
So it is with great pleasure that I now report Pahlaj Nihalani just been fired and replaced as the head of the CBFC.
The news broke on Times Now earlier today, but it’s been a long time coming. Once Udta Punjab beat an 89-cut mandate in the courts last year, and once Alankrita Srivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha made it to Indian cinemas last month after being banned entirely, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Nihalani. Nothing’s a sure thing until it’s a sure thing, so the months’ worth of rumblings about him losing his job didn’t necessarily inspire confidence (nothing eventually became of that parallel certification committee proposed in 2016 either), but here we are. He’s gone, and hopefully the board’s regressive attitude will follow.
Nihalaji’s successor is Prasoon Joshi, lyricist, poet, screenwriter, CEO of McCann World Group India and Asia Pacific chairman of McCann Erickson. It’s hard to say whether or not things will improve under him just yet; he was, after all, a communications manager for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign, and you may recall what silliness Nihalani’s affection for Modi, whom he once called his “action hero,” eventually resulted in. Pragmatically speaking though, so long as Joshi doesn’t want to try and ban the word “lesbian” and censor any and all forms of sexual content even from films rated “A” (Adult), it’s a step up.
Joshi is notably forward-thinking when it comes to depictions of women in cinema. Whether that manifests as artistic dialogue or restriction remains to be seen, but by all accounts, things look good. It’s worth noting that Joshi was involved with the film Aarakshan, which was banned in several states back in 2011. He’s also worked on several films (like the anti-authoritarian Rang De Basanti) with actor Aamir Khan and an ad with Udta Punjab producer Anurag Kashyap, both strong vocal opponents of censorship, and according to filmmaker Mukesh Bhatt, who’s been publicly embroiled in censorship debates since things began to worsen, Joshi understands the necessity of creative freedom.
Given that Nihalani’s term was set to end in January 2018, his early removal feels like a positive sign. The problem as a whole isn’t going to go away overnight, since it’s a combination of the widespread social inability to disagree on art and the continued ability of the Government to make these decisions for cinema via the Cinematograph Act of 1952, but this feels like a step in the right direction. The general attitude towards censorship as a means of “cultural preservation” can best be summed up in this exchange from my interview with Nihalani:
PN: 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.
Given the way the Indian film industry has vocally opposed every censorship controversy, replacing Nihalani with a seasoned Industry regular feels like something of a victory. Hopefully it means a more positive environment when it comes to art and artistic discourse too.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do this for a while: