The setting sun has turned the sea a deep orange. The view from his cabin at the office of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in Walkeshwar, south Mumbai, however, does little to calm Pahlaj Nihalani, who is furiously flipping through the pages of a few files on his desk. His brow furrowed, he picks up the phone and dials a number. It’s filmmaker David Dhawan on the other end. Dhawan and his producer Sajid Nadiadwala have submitted promos and a song from their movie for certification.
Nihalani tells them the Sikh community seems to have taken offence to what looks like a kirpan attached to the hero’s belt in a few scenes. The makers explain that the song has been shot in Morocco and what has been used isn’t a kirpan but a local weapon. “But darling… why don’t you do away with scenes that show it at all? It can unnecessarily turn into a controversy,” he argues. Dhawan, however, seems to stick to his ‘kirpan’.
Nihlani’s scissor-happy ways, ever since he took over as CBFC chairperson in January 2015, have inspired dozens of memes and jokes on social media. But this time round, with the latest row over the Abhishek Chaubey-directed Udta Punjab, Nihalani may have cut just too deep. After the CBFC’s Revising Committee he headed asked for 94 cuts in the film, the Bombay High Court cleared it with one cut and a disclaimer.
Back in his office, Nihalani hangs up in annoyance. “I am trying my best to help them all out. But if they are adamant, what can I do?” he says, before adding, “I have been a producer and I know how things work.”
There is a fair amount of truth to that. If the number of years spent in the industry were a measure of a filmmaker’s competence, Nihalani would fare quite well. The 66-year-old began his career as early as 1954. One of the heirs of a rich Sion-based Sindhi joint family, which owned a number of businesses, including polythene and yarns, the young boy would take little interest in education. “Instead, I would skip school to watch 6 am shows of films at Lalbaug’s Jayant Cinema, which would open early because its key audience were the mill workers. The first film I saw was Madhumati. I watched that at Broadway in Dadar,” he recounts.
While movies were a hobby, Nihalani says it was his “passion for social work” that helped him find his calling. “I have been involved with charity work since the age of 10. I would actively help organise fund raisers for calamity-struck areas or other causes. It was for one such event that I sought the rights to show Chetan Anand’s Funtoosh (1956). This opened doors to film distribution,” he says.
Nihalani remained a small-time distributor for years, personally ferrying prints of Dara Singh’s action films and other popular releases from Naaz building in Mumbai’s Grant Road neighbourhood, once home to Bollywood’s most powerful distributors and financiers. In 1975, Nihalani launched his own distribution company and then branched out to produce films such as Shola aur Shabnam, Dil Tera Deewana, Aankhen and Andaaz. “It was one of my best decisions even though I ended up severing ties with my joint family… They were unwilling to back such a risk.”
While today most of Nihalani’s films are considered B-grade Bollywood potboilers of the ’90s, Ratan Jain of Venus Worldwide Entertainment points out that he was one of the most successful producers then. “He was no Prakash Mehra but he has worked with some of the biggest names of the time, be it Dharmendra, Anil Kapoor or Karisma Kapoor. And he launched Govinda and Neelam, among others. He was among the most courted producers and Dhawan and Anees Bazmi started their careers directing films under his banner,” says Jain.
To understand his position, says a popular screenwriter, one also needs to understand that producers then were kings, with the kind of clout that studios enjoy today. “The market was driven by black money and funds from the underworld. There was very little white money involved and therefore, very little paperwork. So no director or actor had qualms working with a producer as long as the film was being financed by them. It all worked on verbal agreements,” he explains.
Those were times when the film’s mahurat would be done even before scripting started and a popular star came on board, not for the script but for the money offered or for personal obligations. The mahurat, in such a case, worked as an invitation to finance a film and get distributors. If the film was shelved at any point, no one bothered because it merely meant that the black money supply had run dry. “It is this era that Nihalani belonged to. And if you see him through that prism, it becomes easier to understand him,” says director Anees Bazmee.
Nihalani speaks of those days fondly. “I never ‘signed on’ an actor or technician; my word was enough. We would pay them once the film had released and made money. A producer’s job wasn’t merely to finance a film but also to make sure he chose the right theatres because screening it at wrong places could lead to a film flopping,” he recounts, citing the example of films such as Geet Gaata Chal that released in Metro Cinema in Mumbai but became a blockbuster by word of mouth, eventually showing for 50 weeks. “The relationship between a distributor and exhibitor used to be crucial. A film was like a daughter and you had to find the right cinema to showcase it as if it were a groom. But today, all that has changed,” he rues.
The filmmaker’s biggest grouse is that “films now are made for money, not emotion, and no one cares for producers, only for studios… It’s because top stars have all become producers and their power is ultimate. They buy media so the publicity is always in their favour and they use their own face to market a film. Content has no value on its own,” says Nihalani.
Hearing Nihalani talk of the value of “content” may evoke sniggers from those who know his cinema. But he lashes out at those who call his films B-grade and worse and points out that his productions have mostly been “family entertainers” and big hits with top stars. “I have used some of the best talent for my films but truth is, I was a one-man army, who used to work on every aspect of the film — from story and scripting to direction and distribution. I have been an honest and hard-working man,” he says.
Nihalani’s experience with the CBFC also dates back to those days. A member of the industry, who does not wish to be named, remembers him as one of those few producers who would not employ an agent but show up personally at the CBFC office to have his films certified, waiting there for hours on end. “In fact, he once fought with the then CBFC chief to allow the use of a scene in Andaz (1994), in which cycling shorts worn by the heroine were visible under her skirt,” he says.
The song Sarkai lo khatiya from Raja Babu, laced with double entendre lyrics, which gets thrown at Nihalani every time he wields the Censor scissors, has its own story of a run-in with the CBFC — and the BJP. The censors objected to the alleged obscenity in the song but it was cleared when Nihalani approached the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal.
He recounts, “Shakti Samanta, who was head of the CBFC then, watched the film and gave it the green signal. But Gopinath Munde, the late BJP leader, was against it. He held protests for its ban and the issue went to the Mantralaya (the headquarters of the Maharashtra government). Though they didn’t object to my song, I told them that since it is such a bone of contention, I will voluntarily delete the song and I did so. Tell me, which filmmaker today will do that?”
His critics talk of the man’s convenient morals, but Nihalani says nothing about him has changed and that he has always been a “firm believer” that good films can be made without skin show or innuendos. He cites the example of his own Mitti aur Sona, “where the actor playing a prostitute didn’t have to take her clothes off”. “The message is what is important. As filmmakers, we have to be responsible,” he asserts.
Nihalani remains suspicious of the new wave of Indie cinema. He believes most of them are “making films for money and take up zero responsibility” for the losses that the distributors incur when their films fail. “Look at all of them who are accusing me of making B- and C-grade films. They have not delivered a single hit. Dubaa diya distributors ko (They have left distributors counting their losses).”
Nihalani lives in a bungalow in Bandra with his wife Neeta, three sons and their families. “All my sons are are in the film industry. One is a filmmaker while another has an agency that edits film promos. The third is a creative producer and found himself unnecessarily dragged into the Udta Punjab controversy,” he says. His son Chirag and daughter-in-law Radhika both work for Balaji Motion Pictures Ltd, which is one of the film’s producers. “We all live together but we never discuss work. In fact, my sons may still advise me on my films but I don’t know what is going on with their work,” he says, adding that he is likely to have five films released under his banner, Pahlaj Nihalani Films, next year, including one titled Sanskari or ‘cultured’. The word is a jibe that he encounters all too often, but that doesn’t bother him. “I take it as a compliment. ‘Sanskari’ is a good word, a good quality,” he says.
It’s the evening before Udta Punjab hits the screens and social media has already declared CBFC and Nihalani’s damaged ego guilty of leaking the film’s print. When he walked in late afternoon, Nihalani looked perturbed and harassed but now, with all the work he has to deal with, he doesn’t seem to care about the controversy.
“I am an honest man doing my job as I am supposed to. I was a founding member of the Association of Pictures and TV Programme Producers and chaired it for 29 years. I even led the fight against the underworld, helping those who received threats by getting them police security. I was threatened by underworld don Abu Salem and received police cover at one point. Why would I bother about what the world thinks of me?” he quips.
But the truth is, the world around him has undergone a huge change since he took over the CBFC post. As the nature of Bollywood changed in the late ’90s, Nihalani’s clout in the industry dimmed and he was left with fewer friends. Over these years, the generation gap between him and the industry seems only to have widened.
Nihalani’s friends such as Ratan Jain of Venus and filmmaker K C Bokadia believe he is a man caught between the industry and his duty towards the position he now occupies. Many others, however, believe the problem is chiefly rooted in Nihalani’s “obsession with power”.
“There have been other CBFC chiefs too and I have dealt with several of them in my three-decade-long career,” says filmmaker Subhash Saigal, whose film Yaara Silly Silly on prostitution was earlier approved by the CBFC Examining Committee but denied certification by Nihalani for its alleged cuss words. “When I met him to reason things out, he told me I can approach the court if I want but no authority in the world can get my film cleared,” says Saigal, who then approached the tribunal, which cleared the film. However, despite repeated attempts to reach Nihalani, Saigal has been unable to get the final certificate from CBFC.
More than one filmmaker spoke of how Nihalani seemed to revel in the authority his job as Censor chief gave him. Director Kanu Behl, whose Titli released late last year with several cuts and an ‘A’ certificate, says, “At one point, during a meeting to negotiate the cuts, he told us, ‘Ab main dikhaunga tum naye directors ko ki filmein kaise banayi jaati hain (I’ll show all you new directors how to make films)’,” Behl recounts.
Nihalani may not have too many friends within the CBFC either. “He has a coterie that functions as he likes. He handpicks the committee members and personally sits for most of the important promo and film certification screenings. This has never happened before because the job of a chairperson is to guide and shape the philosophy of the CBFC; not get involved with day-to-day functions.”
But to Nihalani, these accusations reek of “jealousy and helplessness”. Staring out of the window at the sea, he thinks for a moment before turning to say, “I have finished off corruption in the CBFC and I am playing by the rulebook. Those who are against me want me out because I am one man doing my job with honesty. Filmmakers can no longer get away with whatever wrong they were doing until now. I have the courage and might to take them on. Like one of my friends tells me, ‘Tu mard aadmi hai’. Yes, that’s me.”
Set against the backdrop of communal riots, Mr & Mrs Iyer faced trouble in 2002 for a scene where the Muslim character is asked to drop his pants. Then CBFC chief Vijay Anand took a stand and cleared it. Considered the most liberal CBFC chiefs so far, Anand quit with members of the board after the I&B Ministry refused his proposal to allow select theatres to screen X-rated films.
Shekhar Kapoor’s acclaimed biopic of Phoolan Devi, titled Bandit Queen, was denied certification during Asha Parekh’s tenure. She objected to “nudity” in the film.
In 1998, during Shakti Samanta’s tenure as CBFC chief, Fire got an ‘A’ certificate and was released without any cuts. After violent protests, it was sent back to CBFC for revision but re-released without cuts in 1999. However, Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra wasn’t as lucky and faced a ban.
In 2004, both Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, based on the 1993 Bombay blasts, and Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution on the Gujarat riots ran into trouble. The former, earlier cleared without cuts under Anupam Kher’s tenure, had to be kept on hold for three years till the TADA court gave its verdict. The ban on Sharma’s documentary was lifted after a sustained campaign.
Sharmila Tagore found herself accused of being too lenient towards Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara and allowing it with minimum cuts.
David Fincher withdrew The Girl with Dragon Tattoo from India after the CBFC, under Leela Samson, asked for 41 cuts.
In January 2015, CBFC refused to clear MSG: Messenger of God where the Dera Sacha Sauda chief was portrayed as god. Sampson, along with nine board members, quit after MSG was cleared by the tribunal.