As a teenager, Shlok Sharma thought there were three kinds of cinema in this world: Bollywood, Hollywood and art. Years of watching and dreaming about cinema in various languages led him to a richer idea of movies, and motivated him to make films. But the 32-year-old filmmaker, bruised by a long battle with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) over Haraamkhor, his film on a love affair between a teacher and a minor student, has a new lesson to learn. “Producers have begun to ask us, filmmakers, to veer away from the ‘A’ tag and make ‘U/A’ films to avoid censor trouble. Now we have to start making films not by story or genre but by certification category.”
For years now, it has not been able to resist straying from its brief (certifying films) to play censor-censor but since the appointment of Pahlaj Nihalani as chairperson in 2015, the CBFC has taken its role as the cultural arbiter of India’s film-watching audience very seriously. It began with Nihalani’s decision to “ban” cuss words from films, followed by a rather sanskaari interpretation of the guidelines from The Cinematograph Act, 1952. That led to the word “lesbian” being muted from a dialogue in 2015’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Last year, the makers of Udta Punjab were embroiled in a very public battle against Nihalani, and went to court to fight the 94 cuts ordered by the board.
The CBFC has, recently, denied certification to a film about women’s sexual desires, Lipstick Under My Burkha, for being “lady-oriented” — in other words, for talking about women and their sexual desires. It struck down a scene in Phillauri, where muttering Hanuman Chalisa proves no shield against a ghost. Perhaps, Mr Nihalani had some personal experience of exorcising the ghosts of liberalism from CBFC by said method.
Not surprisingly, the CBFC’s many decisions have left film writers convinced that they are in a Pahlaj Nihalani film: there is a lot of song and dance about nothing; every decision feels like a farce, and the cycle repeats itself a lot.
Some filmmakers are responding with the obvious solution: self-censorship. Many are just clueless. Many are looking for alternative ways to say what they want to “without getting caught”. They also have suggestions for their fellow filmmakers on how to get their film past the CBFC.
Avinash Das, director of Anaarkali of Aarah, says that, perhaps, getting Nihalani to co-write the scripts will help. Director Raj Nidimoru suggests that censors swoop in at the scripting level. Kanu Behl, director of Titli, wonders if colour grading a film in saffron might help.
To aid both filmmakers and the audience, we came up with a love-sex-dhoka-sanskaar guide to making inoffensive films in India today:
We sell love stories. But only of the straight and narrow kind. If homosexuality appears as a caricature in films, for instance, in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, where a bunch of men chase Varun Dhawan, you will sail through. But, any respectable presentation of love between two people of the same sex is to be avoided (a kiss between a same-sex couple was snipped from the song Labon ka karobar in Befikre).
The rules apply also to Oscar-nominated films, such as Moonlight. A drama about a boy coming to terms with his sexuality, Moonlight was shown across India with a crucial scene, where the protagonist is initiated into sex, chopped off. A CBFC panel member on the examining committee that certified the film, actor Ashok Banthia, says he was surprised that the film was nominated for the Oscars. “Frankly, I didn’t like it very much. Maybe it went as far as the Oscars because it deals with African [sic] characters. Look at The Salesman, such a fine film and didn’t have any kind of nudity,” said Banthia. Of course, The Salesman was an example of how we now have the chops to censor a film from Iran, a country which has taught the world a lesson or two in censorship. But Banthia believes “those were minor cuts”.
We all know that long kisses are no longer allowed in India. And with post-colonial pizzazz, we have shown James Bond his place. It is not that we frown upon sex, but the characters have to be pure and in love (remember Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania). Casual references to sex between live-in partners Shradhha Kapoor and Aditya Roy Kapur in Ok Jaanu had to go. “Why don’t we go back to the era where a flower placed on the women’s lips by the hero represented conjugal desire and the touching of two roses meant sex?” asks Jayan K Cherian, whose Malayalam film, Ka Bodyscapes, has been refused certification for being explicit and “glorifying the subject of gay and homosexual relationship”. A member of the CBFC panel, who did not wish to be named, says that while a few decisions are overzealous, the board is not always wrong. “With Ka Bodyscapes, for instance, we did ask the maker to remove nude images of Indian gods. I may not have a problem with the visual at a personal level, but if you see it with respect to the current mood in the country, you may understand that the decision was an honest attempt to ensure that there is no law and order situation,” he says.
If sex is iffy, sexual harassment needs to be sanitised. The opening sequence in Anaarkali of Aarah, where a man attempts to grab a dancing girl’s breast, was deleted. “It’s a film about a nautch girl who fights for her dignity against her molesters. Yet, such a defining scene had to be edited out. Thankfully, we expected this and had an alternative scene ready,” says Das. He adds, “Today, CBFC comes later. The first level of censorship is the producer. For instance, our producer did not back our fight against the censor board.”
DESH AUR DHOKA
Given how many kinds of activities have been declared “anti-national” — slogans, criticism, beef-eaters — it’s crucial to snip potential insults to the nation and its leader. Filmmaker Dakxin Chhara was asked by the board to delete “mann ki baat” from a dialogue in his Hindi film Sameer because it’s the name of PM Narendra Modi’s radio show. The Bengali film Shunyoto on the plight of the common man after demonetisation was not cleared.
Chhara calls these hurdles state censorship. “I was asked to remove a BJP flag from the background that accidentally made its way in a scene and was of no relevance. The board also expects me to mute the dialogue ‘Musalman hai kya?’ in a crucial scene, when, in no way does it degrade the character’s religious identity,” says Chhara.
Sameer Bhargav, the producer of CBFC board member Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Mohalla Assi, has a few ideas on how to squeeze past the censors. Based on respected Hindi author Kashinath Singh’s award-winning novel Kashi ka Assi, the film has a number of political references, directly drawn from the book. Although Bhargav is fighting the CBFC order to delete all cuss words from the film in court, he might erase mentions of political figures or parties. “Even if the court passes the film intact, we may delete references to CPI, BJP, Lalu Prasad Yadav and so on, as we don’t want any litigation in the future,”
Another panel member explains just why there should be political party workers on the panel. “The film industry doesn’t understand patriotism and nationalism. They willingly work with Pakistani actors also. It’s important that people like us are there to intercept films that will insult the country and its leaders,” he says.
The most versatile of injunctions, it is the most difficult to follow because Indian culture and tradition is enormously varied, and protected by elderly uncles prone to taking offence. As Alankrita Srivastav, director of Lipstick Under My Burkha, found out, just being “lady-oriented” in thought could be transgressive.
While objectification of women in item songs may be acceptable, nudity of any sort isn’t. Director Saijo Kannanaikal is still battling to release his Malayalam film Kathakali on the life of a dancer, because in a crucial scene in the climax, the protagonist removes his costumes and walks towards the river. The film has been banned on grounds of nudity. “The Cinematograph Act makes it clear that each case is subjective. The nudity in the climax is not shown with a perverse sense or to titillate the audience. It reflects the artiste’s state of mind. Yet, the film has been denied a certificate,” he rues.
Nidimoru, co-director of Go Goa Gone, says the new restrictions changed the entire film. “We managed to retain most of the film for cinemas, but, on TV, an oddly censored version runs where any scene with blood — there are many because it’s a zombie film — is turned monochrome. I had no idea I was making a part black-and-white film when I directed it,” he says. Maybe you could look at it this way, he urges. The CBFC firmans are meant to push filmmakers to become more creative. “For a poster of the film, we were asked to replace the cigar in Saif Ali Khan’s mouth. Our solution to the problem was to replace it with a shotgun cartridge instead.”