Concerns regarding the CBFC’s disciplinarian censorship methods resurfaced when the Board refused to allow the broadcast of the Oscar-winning film, The Danish Girl’s television broadcast on Sony Pictures Network’s channel, which narrates the story of a man who underwent the world’s first sex reassignment surgery.
While The Danish Girl did manage to get a nation-wide release last year, when it came to television broadcast, the CBFC had qualms. “The whole subject is controversial, and it’s unsuitable to be viewed by children. It talks about a man who wants a sex change and has a genital operation to become a woman. The subject is sensitive and how do you edit a subject like that?” a CBFC board member told Mumbai Mirror.
The CBFC has been in the news often in the recent past, embroiled in countless controversial debates regarding the certification and release of certain films – from Lipstick Under My Burkha and Phillauri to Ka Bodycapes, a film that celebrates homosexuality.
At multiple levels, one could argue that the CBFC, which carries an overpowering paternalistic agenda, holds a self-appointed responsibility to direct our collective ‘moral compass’ – that our morality must be preserved, at the end of the day. And that is problematic, since the Board assumes the role of a condescending dictator in its attempt to ‘protect’ us from viewing films that could, according to the Board, possibly scar or sully our conscience. It presupposes our naivety.
The political context is important to observe as well, where the ruling government’s inherent ideology often tends to correspond with the nature and how closely the CBFC monitors the film industry. In the 1990s, there was an increase in the number of interventions the CBFC made in the proliferation of popular culture. Film historian Nandana Bose observes, “Hindu nationalist discourse played a catalytic role in the raging censorship debates, in many instances causing or exacerbating the 1990s ‘censor wave’.”
It was in between 1992 and 1995 that the CBFC began taking the impact of sexual content and violence in films on adolescents seriously, when it began receiving countless letters regarding the potential danger cinema posed on adolescents who had the tendency to mimic what they saw in films. Films began being looked at as mediums responsible for increasing the number of crimes and sexual assaults in the country – that they functioned as instruments that soiled the social and moral fabric of the nation. Political parties, particularly the BJP and Shiv Sena, used films such as The Villain (1993), Khalnayak (1993) and Andaz (1994) to spread fear and panic of moral degradation and trigger public outrage. This was a period where the public began demanding a heightened degree of intervention from the CBFC to regulate films.
Today, however, when it comes to the depiction of violence in films, the CBFC appears to be softer towards such films than those that carry sexual content or are LGBT-themed. Ironically, films which have disconcerting degrees of violence, are quite often given green flags. Take features like Gangs of Wasseypur, which was released with the ‘A’ certificate – ironically, Anurag Kashyap’s Paanch, was banned primarily due to its disturbing violent content. Even films such as Veyil or Subramaniapuram which shows a man sawing off the head of another man in an auto-rickshaw (at 3:45 minutes) show unpalatable degrees of violence. The fact that these films exist and were released in cinemas show that CBFC’s priorities are perhaps misplaced.
Sexual content in films has been an important part of public discourse, but it spiked primarily in the early 1990s, when letters written by ‘concerned’ citizens were sent to the CBFC and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. In 1991, the chairman of the All India Film Goers Association addressed the then I&B Minister K. P Singh Deo saying “[F]ilmmakers are doing their best to destroy the social and cultural values of the people only to earn more and more money” and that filmmakers were “playing with the life [sic] of our children which can easily be spoiled.” He accused the CBFC of completely failing “to check sex and violence”.
At that time, scenes that contained sex or insinuated sex between characters, was condemned. Public belief was that such films with lewd songs and scenes went on to encourage sexual promiscuity and in turn, proliferated AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases. Interestingly, since AIDS and other such diseases were associated with homosexuality, there was a public outcry with regards to the release of Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) which explored lesbianism.
That degree of anxiety resurfaced recently. From Unfreedom (2015) that depicted a closeted lesbian kidnapping her lover, to The Pink Mirror (2003) which explored the controversial turf of trans-sexuality, to Ka Bodyscapes (2016) that revolved around love expressed by same-sex individuals – all were embroiled in controversies and eventually banned. The CBFC reasoned that films like Ka Bodyscapes were ‘vulgar’, ‘obscene’ and ‘depraved’ and would “hurt people’s sentiments”. It stated, “[Ka Bodyscapes] is glorifying the subject of gay and homosexual relationship, nudity accentuating vital parts of male body (in paintings) in closed shots in the whole movie.”
The CBFC further stated, “The film is explicit of scene offending Hindu sensibilities depicting vulgarity and obscenity through the movie. The religion of ‘Hindu’ is portrayed in a derogatory manner especially Lord Hanuman (shown in poor light as gay) which may cause law and order problem in society.” Religion and films remapping communal riots have often been subjects of contention – which is why films like Parzania and Firaaq, both which were focused on the 2002 Godhra riots were banned in Gujarat.
The CBFC, however, has the tendency of taking the idea of films ‘hurting’ religious sentiments seriously, at times far too seriously holding on to reasons that often border on the absurd. A recent example of this was Phillauri (2017), where the Board asked the film’s producers to mute the scene where the actor Suraj Sharma is reciting the Hanuman Chalisa. The Board argued that since the Hindu belief system upholds the idea that ghosts are obliterated with the recital of the Chalisa, keeping the Chalisa audible would tantamount to “hurting of religious sentiments”.
When it comes to sexual content, the CBFC has been selective in culling only certain films. Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017), which portrays the lives and aspirations of four women in a small town, for example, was an easy target. The Board refused to issue a film certificate claiming Lipstick Under My Burkha was a “lady-oriented” film and portrayed a woman’s “fantasy above life”. The reason for objection was that the film contained “contanious (sic) sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography” that degraded the Indian culture. The leading argument is that such films threaten the very fabric of Indian culture and reflect the ‘Westernization’ of our times.
The argument that certain films are ‘un-Indian’ due to the nature of their explicit content, has been resurrected from time to time depending on the ruling political government. Film historian Nandana Bose wrote, “From 1998 onwards, under the aegis of a BJP-led government, the outcry against ‘threats to Indian culture’ and paranoia about ‘foreign cultural invasion’ became increasingly a convenient ploy to stifle any dissent through the threat of censors.” A similar trend of cinema policing seems to be emerging today.
Interestingly, however, while fringe films like Lipstick Under My Burkha and Ka Bodyscapes have been denied certificates, mainstream films such as Kya Kool Hain Hum (2016) and Mastizaade (2016) which are suffused with blatant and unpalatable sexual innuendos (but are backed by big production houses), are released without any censor incisions. And that is something to think about.