Under the stewardship of Pahlaj Nihalani, the Central Board of Film Certification is going where no censor has dreamt of going before. From being a habitual objector to allegedly lurid images and bad language, it has graduated to being affrighted by everyday words and phrases. It has demanded the removal of terms like “Hindu India”, “Gujarat” and “cow” from The Argumentative Indian, a documentary on Amartya Sen. The organisation, set up to protect the public from the excesses of potboiler cinema, now presumes to cull the thoughts of one of India’s foremost public intellectuals.
The CBFC’s censoring of “Gujarat” and “cow” is the stuff of stereotypes about banana republics, but its presumption is no laughing matter. Presumably, it enjoys government support. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting selects the board members and the chairman, and Nihalani’s appointment has been controversial. Immediately after assuming office, he had expressed profuse admiration for the prime minister, and board members had resigned en masse on account of his apparent proximity to the ruling party, the BJP. “Gujarat” is not the first place name that the board has objected to, and tried to scrub out. Nihalani had earlier issued a list of banned terms which included “Bombay”.
The arbitrariness had caused the CBFC much embarrassment when the list was leaked. The board, under him, ordered multiple deletions in Udta Punjab including references to “Punjab”.
The bizarre demand for surgery on a documentary could be seen as part of a general phenomenon which is narrowing the spectrum of thought and expression by a thousand cuts. This government has been seen to be impatient with its critics, and the effects have been visible from the time of the “award wapsi” of 2015, when many in the creative community rejected state recognition. It has allowed a disabling environment to develop which favours authorised versions, and in which the curbing or trashing of alternative opinions has gone unchecked. In the creative domain, the hounding of authors and filmmakers has been damaging for democracy. Nihalani himself has shown an unhealthy enthusiasm for censoring rather than certifying, which is the statutorily defined purpose of the CBFC. This has a stifling effect on creative expression in cinema, reflecting the attenuation of the public discourse. He, and his board, would be well advised to consider Sen’s warning in The Argumentative Indian — the book, not the documentary: “Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us… Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong.”