The Censor Board’s ratings for mainstream Bollywood films reveal a gender bias and star obsession, over and above the extreme conservatism of which it is often accused
By Anna M.M. Vetticad
By the time you read this, chances are that the heated discussions about Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet would have died down, to be replaced by chatter about Aanand L Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns. Chances are too that in the midst of the din about the quality of Kashyap’s film, a crucial point would have been lost: that its gruesome violence was rated U/A by India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).
The U/A certificate indicates that it is deemed fit for unrestricted viewing, though parental discretion is advised for children below 12. Producers prefer U/A to an A (adult) rating which affects collections by limiting a film’s potential audience.
Let me make it clear: this column is not against violence on screen. Unless a film glorifies, romanticises or advocates violence (Bombay Velvet has not done any of this) no one should curb a director’s freedom of expression. The issue here though is that the CBFC is consistently inconsistent.
Back when Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2 were released with A ratings in 2012, there was cause for celebration, because the films’ narrative steeped in expletives, crime and bloodshed was expected to incur the Board’s wrath. These assumptions were based on the Board’s track record, which included a refusal to clear Kashyap’s remarkable debut feature Paanch in 2001 on charges that it glorified crime, indulged in double entendre and bore no positive social message. The absurdity of the accusations lay in the fact that Paanch, quite to the contrary, was about the pointlessness of violence.
Over a decade later, GoW was handled by a different Board headed by classical dancer Leela Samson whose tenure (April 2011-January 2015) marked the dawn of a new progressiveness in the CBFC. Samson’s Board was not without flaws, mostly though because of the dated rules under which even liberals are compelled to operate and because the overall system desperately needs an overhaul. Despite these constraints, films like GoW were released.
However, then too, as it is with the abysmally regressive present Board headed by Pahlaj Nihalani, and in fact long before Samson entered the picture, the ratings for mainstream Bollywood films reveal two aspects of India’s Censor system: a gender bias and a star obsession. First, over the years, films by directors who are perceived as ‘artistic’ and ‘serious’ — Kashyap being an example — have been far more likely to get scissored or rated A or both, than films by directors widely considered more mass-oriented and/or mainstream.
Second, films revolving around big-league commercial male stars tend to get gentler treatment than those with younger, less established actors or those primarily associated with off-mainstream cinema. Third, female-centric films seem to be viewed through an entirely different lens from male-centric projects, possibly because they are automatically seen as ‘serious’. Take for instance the A-rated Rani Mukerji-starrer Mardaani (2014). When actor-producer-director Aamir Khan was informed about Mukerji’s reported intention to challenge the A, he was quoted as saying he agrees with the rating because young children should not be exposed to the kind of language and violence depicted in the film, adding: “Most absurd and strange things are shown in some films which are U or U/A. I cannot believe how it is shown in the film. I think we should be careful about what we are exposing our children to.” (Source: ibnlive.com)
That’s a curious statement, considering that Khan appeared to have no qualms about the U/A certification for his blood-spattered 2008 film Ghajini in which he played a ferocious, murderous hero. Ghajini featured far more gory aggression depicted far more graphically than anything in Mardaani. Yet it was deemed fit for children whose parents thought it suitable for their young wards.
The pattern of the Censor response to women-led films cannot be a coincidence. In a year when Bombay Velvet has received kid-glove treatment, the Anushka Sharma-starrer NH10 was certified A. Yes, NH10 is bloody. No doubt too that NH10 and the comparatively mild Mardaani merited As. The question is: why the double standards?
As already mentioned, women are not the only victims of this hypocrisy. Three years after Ghajini and Aamir Khan got lucky, the John Abraham-starrer Force — with its unrelenting scenes of blood-spurting, bone-crunching police brutality — got away with a U/A. In 2015, while Bombay Velvet headlined by Ranbir Kapoor has been awarded a U/A, Badlapur was certified A. Can it be happenstance that Badlapur starred the popular but still emerging youngster Varun Dhawan and gave equal significance to the darling of indie projects, Nawazuddin Siddiqui?
Can it be just chance that Badlapur’s director Sriram Raghavan remains best-known for his non-massy films Ek Hasina Thi (albeit a Saif Ali Khan-starrer) and Johnny Gaddaar? Can it possibly be a fluke that the only two U/A ratings in Kashyap’s filmography of 14 years as a feature director have gone to No Smoking (2007) with John Abraham and Bombay Velvet starring the hottest hero of this generation?
If India’s film rating norms are to be believed, it would seem that Kay Kay Menon’s highly believable, wild, amoral character in Paanch is objectionable; but not the violence of Ranbir Kapoor’s Johnny Balraj, including a close-up of him wrapping his arm around a man’s neck to crush and twist it. It would seem that a policewoman bashing up a criminal in Mardaani could ruin our children; but a policeman committing many more grievous acts of violence in Force cannot. Just saying.
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on May 23, 2015)
Photograph courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombay_Velvet
Note: This photograph was not sourced from The Hindu Businessline