Filmmakers in India have been increasingly unafraid to experiment in their craft and showcase this vibrant dynamism through treatment of progressive themes. Unfortunately, a creative freedom menace in the form of Pahlaj Nihalani runs the Central Board of Film Certification – a de facto “censor board” holding movies hostage by pitching authoritarianism in the flavor of victorian morality towards sex and sexuality.
The same day that the President Pranab Mukherjee had praised the right to freedom of expression inherent in the idea of India, we had FTII chairman Gajendra Chauhan extolling the CBFC for determinedly refusing the certification of Malayalam movie Ka Bodyscapes. Such is the moral conviction of the Nihalani-led brigade that they refused certification even after a Kerala High Court instructed them to do so after the first refusal last year.
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The rejection letter received by director Jayan Cherian, blatantly and unapologetically stank of homophobia. It also claimed that the movie portrayed “the religion of Hindu” in a derogatory manner by showing Hanuman “in poor light as gay”. In an interview with Scoopwhoop, Cherian said, “I don’t know how they came to that conclusion. That painting in question, is the masterpiece created by my protagonist. It shows his lover, the rural kabaddi player, as a flying man because he is a disciple of Hanuman. The painting is not of Hanuman at all.” The CBFC is phobic to even a connotation that a devotee of Hanuman can be gay — thus jumping to bizarre conclusions on its own.
The first charge it levies against the film is of “glorifying” homosexuality – showing the outright in-denial attitude of the CBFC towards up to 10 per cent of the world’s population including India (A panel in Khajuraho depicting a man receiving fellatio from another man is one of several documented examples of acknowledgement of homosexuality in ancient India). This is hardly a first. Last year, even the trailer of Hansal Mehta’s critically acclaimed film Aligarh was slapped with an “A” for Adult rating even though it contained no sex scenes, foul language or violence. All it did was acknowledge homosexuality (for it is the story of a protagonist minding his business and wronged by a homophobic society) and show a sympathetic bent to its treatment — that homosexuals are human beings with feelings too that deserve to be understood and respected with the same privacy that is afforded to cisgender folks in their innermost precincts. An A-rating stamped onto the trailer had been a severe blow to the film’s promotion, as it meant that the trailer could not make it to television or even play in the cinemas during screenings of any U rated movies. It is no surprise that audiences simply did not hear of Aligarh until it hit the theatres.
What did sanskaari homophobe Pahlaj Nihalani have to say to that? “If the makers feel it is not justified, then let them take a public opinion on this… Tell me, is the subject of homosexuality for kids? For teenagers?” HT had reported. He had dismissed the filmmakers’ protest against the move as a cheap publicity stunt.
So what counts as not “glorifying” homosexuality? Is it a movie like Dostana (2008) that made a spoof out of homosexuality or an egregious work like Girlfriend (2004), faithful to the age-old trope of a psychologically disturbed homosexual character who meets a diseased or violent end to have “poetic justice” meted out to them for their “aberrant” desires? Any genuine exploration of the gender identity and feelings of the human being targeted for his most private desires (unless it is a heterosexual man’s fantasy) has to be penalised in some form.
“It’s okay to show two men jerking off in sex comedy, but it’s not okay for a Muslim woman to pleasure herself,” Jayan Cherian also told Scoopwhoop, whose rejection letter also stated objection to a Muslim woman shown pleasuring herself. The paternalistic CBFC headmaster likes to install a child lock lest the impressionable audiences feel like adopting the “glorified” sexuality (posing a threat to the patriarchal, male-oriented, heteronormative scheme of things) they see on screen — a behavior also amply and absurdly displayed in its recent refusal to certify the “lady-oriented” film, Lipstick Under My Burkha.
The society has been very much OK about heteronormative male fantasies and the CBFC has accordingly been happy to certify the likes of Mastizaade (2016), Great Grand Masti (2016) and Kya Kool Hain Hum 3 (2016) without a fuss. One doesn’t even need adult-rated movies like these to demonstrate the casual female objectification rampant in Bollywood song lyrics from the past and present, which videos like AIB’s Harassment Through The Ages and NGO Akshara Center’s Gaana Rewrite video below have brilliantly demonstrated:
The shallow and oppressing rules of our society are hypocritical as they exclusively award the ‘right to fantasise’ to heterosexual males. As a result, the male gaze had almost seamlessly blended itself with mainstream pop culture until recently. Only female bodies are made available copiously for consumption, while male bodies and overt fantasies about it are off the charts for women and homosexual men. This is the imbalance that films like Lipstick Under My Burkha and Ka Bodyscapes seek to address. But how dare they?
Another film to have a bizarre encounter with the “censor board” last year was Angry Indian Goddesses — the movie that pitched itself as the first female buddy film of India and contained a theme of lesbian love among others. A movie about women bonding and merrymaking while dressing, drinking, smoking and swearing unselfconsciously, having no qualms about expressing their desires and speaking out against injustices, was barred by the Nihalani brigade from visually identifying with goddesses like Kali and Durga, whose images are a repeating motif throughout the original cut of the film (What a blasphemy for such indecorous, ‘out of control’ femininity to draw inspiration from native goddesses!) Additionally, other cuts were demanded to delete the “obscene” words of the characters expressing their desires — in spite of the film receiving an adult certificate and shockingly, even a couple of references to “sarkar” and “adivasis”. The AIG team actually ended up creating a video about the 17 cuts deemed too horrific for Indian eyes and ears:
The blurring out of goddesses, akin to the objection implied in the allusion to the Muslim community in Lipstick Under My Burkha, betrays the CBFC’s desire to appease and toe the line of religious fundamentalism. Any other interpretation of these symbols is blasphemy — creative freedom and equality be damned.
To speak only of just a few recent movies, it is common knowledge that Ka Bodyscapes, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Aligarh and Angry Indian Goddesses are all acclaimed, multiple award winning and world-traveling movies. The way they have been handled in their own country of origin, by a body that is meant for certification not censorship, and lately behaving like an organ of state authority, should be a cause of distress. It yet again shows the threat that cinema’s soft muscle is perceived as.