The If’s And But’s Of Film Censorship
What’s wrong with the media, and why this cynicism, hue and cry about the appointment of Bharatanatyam exponent Leela Samson as the 26th Chairperson of Central Board of Film Certification (and the fifth woman)? And why this crap about her being a non-film personality and, therefore, the demand for someone who belongs to the messy world of mainstream cinema? And if the criticism is justified it should also apply to the nomination of 25 others who constitute the Censor Board, and their qualifications. In any case the role of the Chairperson comes into purview only where aesthetics and impropriety are concerned. Fortunately, out-going Chairperson, Sharmila Tagore’s generally passed off without much controversy.
But what about those, notwithstanding conflict of interest theory, from the film fraternity who sported the crown of thorns: Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shakti Samanta, Vijay Anand, Asha Parekh, Anupam Kher? Anand and Kher lasted barely a year each, and bowed out under controversial circumstances. Film censorship came in for more flak when headed by these illustrious people from the industry. The problem really comes up when cuts are suggested on grounds of crudity, overt sexuality/vulgarity, religious sentiments, communal or political slight. But there have been numerous instances when films given a clean chit ran into trouble on release, got withdrawn from theatres due to political or social activism. During her tenure, Asha Parekh described it as “vested interests out to exploit the growing sense of intolerance in people, either to grab headline or to make political capital.”
Deepa Mehta’s Fire, for instance, was withdrawn from the theatres because of vandalism by Shiv Sena supporters, and referred back to the Board. It literally had a baptism by fire. It returned to the theatres unscathed but could not ignite the earlier mass hysteria, an aspect, which had brought in sacks full of moolah for the producer of Bandit Queen. Then there were fruitless protests and controversies with Gulzar’s Hu Tu Tu over the LIC song which had to be changed, and Karan Johar’s superhit Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in which all the sequences of the cute little Sikh boy counting the stars and a puzzled Johny Lever looking at his wrist watch had to be deleted. The Sikh sentiments had to be pacified is several other recent films as well even though the Censors found nothing wrong.
This is a rather unfortunate phenomenon in the country. Almost every fourth film is taken to court by some community or the other getting slighted by some dialogue or scene. And in such cases it is neither the producer nor the writer who receives the summons but the artists concerned. To quote Asha Parekh again: “It has become so easy to galvanize a small group of hooligans and create a ruckus and give it the colour of public protest…Almost every day I get threatening calls from vague people asking me to order the recall of one film or another from the cinema halls because, they argue, that a certain line of dialogue, a scene or a song had offended the feelings of their group or religion.” More serious if such an action has been initiated by a fundamentalist socio-political organisation.
Then other kind is the cuts suggested by the Board that the maker finds unacceptable, an interference with freedom of expression, even if the scenes are repulsive. Dev Anand had a showdown with the then chief, Shakti Samanta, on the extent to which four gory scenes of rape, leaving nothing to imagination, be allowed. He was so slighted about the asked cuts in his Main Solah Baras Ki that he went on to make a whole film to mock the system itself in Censor. Poor Asha Parekh had to witness the abusive scene of almost the entire Bhatt family storming into her office and questioning her decision to refer the film Zakhm to the Government for clearance because of excessive scenes of communal violence in the narrative.
Now trudging these two extreme situations, and come out with a win-win situation, is a case of tight rope walk anyway. Film makers regarding the Board conservative, rigid and moralistic even in the present times of satellite channel invasion in every house resulting in exposure to everything, and organised activist groups accusing it for over liberalism, and pandering to too much sexuality being allowed openly especially to a certain kind of cinema. Both Bombay Boys and Fire suffered or benefitted from that count. Much of the language or dialogue in the former certainly surprised one because of the candour. While isn’t the colloquial for the sexual act or organs openly used in the streets, someone might ask, so why object to its presence in a film? In more recent times skeptical response to films depicting lesbianism and homosexuality.
While demitting office, Sharmila Tagore said: “We are not in a business of diminishing freedom but we are also answerable to the society and we believe are quite tuned to society. There will always be that five per cent which wants to do away with the censorship altogether. There is another five per cent which is proactive and wants to cut out everything but there is a majority in the middle which wants some kind of censorship and I think we are doing a responsible job.”
Leela Samson’s comment should have put to rest all speculation: “An impartial observer is not a bad thing. I am not partisan and belong to no camp.” Unlike Asha Parekh, Sharmila Tagore’s tenure saw a liberal attitude. While she too faced problems with the film fraternity. If a Madhur Bhandarkar raised eyebrows, the uncut ‘U’ clearance to Parzania and No One Killed Jessica should put to rest all speculation on what and how far Samson and her team will lead the Central Board of Film Certification, and what the changing times spell. It is certainly different from what Parekh had perceived: “The film industry has, over the years, shared a somewhat tempestuous relationship with the Central Board of Film Certification. Its perception of the board has always been that of a necessary evil. A hindrance to the creative freedom of the film maker. The censors’ interpretation of the censorship code has invariably been seen as conservative, rigid, irrational and unreasonable. The situation hasn’t changed over the years. It has worsened, especially in recent times when representatives of the mainstream were put in charge of the board.” Nothing really perceptively changes in the mainstream cinema. It can’t, given the rigid, selfish interests of the film makers who want to ensure returns at any cost.
By Suresh Kohli