Will changes to India's film board result in a relaxation of censorship?

We examine whether the changes to India’s film board will result in a liberal shift in attitude

AMRITSAR, INDIA - JUNE 17: Police personnel deployed on duty outside the cinema hall after release of movie Udta Punjab at Aanaam Cinema hall, as various Hindu organizations protest against Film Udta Punjab, the drug-themed Bollywood film that was embroiled in a censorship row and multiple legal battles, on June 17, 2016 in Amritsar, India. The protestors carried placards and raised slogans against the producers and director. (Photo by Gurpreet Singhl/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
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Unceremoniously removed as chief of ­India's Central Board of Film ­Certification earlier this month, Pahlaj Nihalani has only himself to blame. The former film producer took his role rather too seriously, ever since he was appointed in 2015. A self-proclaimed preserver of "sanskar" (Indian ­culture), the ultra-conservative ­Nihalani ruled with an iron fist. But his decisions smacked of ­hypocrisy, especially from someone who, in his day, produced movies with ribald content.

In a coup brought about by Smriti Irani, India's information technology and broadcasting minister, Nihalani was replaced with Prasoon Joshi, an advertising mogul (he leads McCann Worldgroup's Asia Pacific division) and a multiple award-winning lyricist and screenwriter. Taking the place of some of Nihalani's associates on the 18-member panel are newcomers including actress Vidya Balan, the star of controversial movies such as The Dirty Picture (2011), and director Madhur Bhandarkar, known for his female-centric films.

As the news of Nihalani's sacking broke, Twitter erupted in glee, and its denizens lost no time in going after the departing CBFC head.

Abhijit Majumder, editor of English-­language daily Mail Today, posted: 

Perhaps the most savage tweet was by comedian Daniel Fernandes:

The reason behind Nihalani's forced exit has not been disclosed, but one possible explanation lies in the friendship between Irani, a former actress, and producer Ekta Kapoor. Irani remains a household name, thanks to her role in Kapoor's hit television soap Kyunki … Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because a Mother-in-Law was Once a Daughter-in-Law). A few months ago, Nihalani refused to allow the release of the film Lipstick Under My Burkha, for which Kapoor was a distributor, on the grounds that it was "too lady-oriented". The movie was only given the green light after director Alankrita Shrivastava took the case to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal. It went on to become a hit, and in doing so, may have sealed Nihalani's fate.

Lipstick Under My Burkha managed to escape the CBFC's proverbial ­scissors, but films such as Udta Punjab (2016), which offered a brutally honest look at the drug epidemic plaguing the titular northern Indian state, and forthcoming thriller Babumoshai Bandookbaaz (due to be released on August 25), have suffered extensive cuts. Even The Argumentative Indian, a documentary on Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, wasn't spared: ­Nihalani suggested beeping out the words "cow", "Hindutva" and "Gujarat" from the voice-over.

A day after he was sacked, Nihalani went on television to present his side of the story. Speaking to combative journalist Arnab Goswami, who accused him of "passing films fit to be watched only by families and babies", Nihalani reiterated his sanctimonious claim that "bold" movies – such as the James Bond franchise – have a corruptive effect on the Indian psyche.

While film fans and the industry are excited about what the future holds, they would do well to exercise caution: the new chief isn't exactly a liberal. Joshi has strong affiliations to the sitting Bharatiya Janata Party government, which is famous for its nationalist Hindutva agenda – he ­masterminded the party's victorious 2014 campaign and is a faithful supporter of prime minister ­Narendra Modi. Joshi has also compared adult-film actress Sunny Leone with a drug peddler, and in a debate about the ­authority of the CBFC at the 2015 ­Jaipur Literature Festival, said: "Anything that hurts someone's sentiments is not correct and should be handled righteously … We need to keep a tab on [filmmakers] to produce authentic work".

If the CBFC continues to impose its version of morality on the masses, there isn't much hope for artistic freedom – or for the audiences. In the end, all it comes down to is good cinema, which far from insulting the nation's collective intelligence, should seek to dignify it.


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