Pahlaj Nihalani, the former chief of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is perhaps one of the most popular heads the board has ever had. His two year tenure came to an end this Friday, on August 11, 2017, as he was removed from the position by the decision made by Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B ministry). His career as the chief  has been marred with criticism, controversy and feuds with the film fraternity, echoed by film directors and producers as well.

His decisions have always gained traction in terms of media attention and welcomed backlash. Soon after joining office and taking charge, he introduced a ban on 28 swear words, despite their usage being restricted to Adult (A) Certification films.  This rule was followed by the decision to ban all (A) Certification movies from being displayed on television. This pronouncement invited a negative reaction from the audience, with questions of creative freedom being raised. In 2015, he found himself amidst another controversy, this time around a film based on homosexuality, called Unfreedom by Raj Amit Kumar. He publicly disapproved of the excessive nudity displayed in the film  and said that it would “ignite unnatural passions” within the Indian society. In the same year he reduced the duration of kissing scenes from the Hollywood movie Spectre as he found them to be “too long and unnecessary”.  He was again faced with dissent for suggesting 89 cuts in Udta Punjab. Nihalani has also made public statements against films that talk about important social issues, such as Angry Indian Goddesses, Lipstick under my Burkha, Aligarh etc, defending his decisions of restricting their viewership by claiming them to be “too women oriented” and that “homosexuality is not for the youth to watch”.

When we think of cinema, we think of concepts like creativity, art and expression. Interestingly, Nihalani’s decisions as the chief of CBFC have curtailed just that. Unnecessary cuts from movies like Befikre; showcasing instances of public display of affection to clearing movies full of sexual innuendos, objectification of women and sexist jokes like Mastizaade, Kya Kool Hain Hum, and Grand Masti, highlights his hypocrisy on what he deems “appropriate” for the Indian culture which he glorifies, spearheading to uphold and preserve in our society.
At a time when concepts like feminism, gender equality, awareness about sex and sexuality are imperative in the Indian society, his “ban-this-ban-that-ban-all” policy pushed the conversation in the wrong direction and takes an extremely regressive turn. Instead of understanding the importance of the impact of cinema on the public, when expressed in a positive manner,  his approach of completely dismissing and not acknowledging numerous important social issues, one of them being the expression of sexuality, has only forwarded the conservative mindset in the society, and has pushed awareness surrounding these issues under the carpet.

Since the inception of censorship in independent India, CBFC has inculcated very ambiguous three-fold objectives for censorship, (a) the medium of cinema remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society, (b) artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed, and (c) censorship is responsive to social change. However, neither the I&B Ministry, nor CBFC have yet provided a clear definition of “standards of society” and has been silent on who sets these standards and on what basis. Controversies are bound to surround this issue of censorship when the CBFC starts acting like a watchdog of what it deems are Indian morals.

The former chairperson told the Economic Times newspaper after he was replaced, “Censorship was necessary and doing away with it would mean filmmakers will resort to showing pornography and vulgarity even in normal films…The more you show vulgarity and obscenity in films, more such incidents will increase in society.” He claims that there have been elements working against him in the ministry and within CBFC as his dismissal came early since his tenure was going to end in the coming five months. He hopes the next chairperson works in a direction similar to his and doesn’t give in to “false notions of liberalism propagated by pseudo-progressive elements in the film industry. “

Prasoon Joshi, one of the leading lyricists and screenwriters in the Bollywood film industry, and the winner of the  Padma Shri in 2015 will be taking over as the CBFC chief. He has worked in Rang De Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, Neerja and many other films. Vidya Balan, a leading Bollywood actress actively working towards social causes is also expected to  join CBFC.

With the recruitment of new members known to have a progressive outlook towards the society, a new wave in the Indian cinema can be hoped, that allows for greater and responsible  freedom of expression of art .

Feature Image Credits- Twitter

Bhavya Banerjee

[email protected]