(This is the English version of an article published on bbc.com/hindi/ on November 28, 2015.)
OUSTING NIHALANI IS NOT ENOUGH, OUST THE CENSOR SYSTEM
There should be no place in a civilised, democratic nation for a statutory body whose job it is to decide what adults can and cannot watch on the big screen?
By Anna MM Vetticad
If Pahlaj Nihalani loses his job as chairperson of India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) – as reports now suggest he will – it should be of limited consolation to filmmakers who have been lamenting his extreme conservatism. After all, his exit does not guarantee an exit of his mindset. The present BJP government at the Centre is unlikely to appoint a liberal to succeed him. Equally important, even a liberal Board chief would be constrained by the long-standing assumption intrinsic to India’s film certification system: that adults don’t know what’s good for them.
To critique the system, it is important to understand how it works. It is mandatory for films to get a CBFC rating before release in India. A film denied a certification cannot be commercially released in theatres. In effect it is banned.
The rating options are as follows:
U – for unrestricted public exhibition.
UA – unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for those under 12.
A – for adults only.
S – restricted to specialised audiences such as doctors or scientists.
As you can see, India’s ratings system attributes the same maturity levels across the 12-18 age group. Worse, authorities here can enforce alterations even after giving a film an A rating.
This is in sharp contrast to, say, the US system where producers voluntarily submit their films for ratings – they are not legally required to, but do so anyway because most theatres apparently observe these ratings; the ratings are focused on guiding parents, not curbing adult viewers; and they are far more reflective of maturity levels among minors. They are:
G – General.
PG – Parental Guidance is recommended since the film may contain some material parents may consider inappropriate for their children.
PG-13 – parents are strongly advised to investigate the film before letting under-13s watch it.
R – under-17s not allowed unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 – persons who are 17 and below are not allowed.
On the first rung of the Indian system are examining committees (ECs) at centres across the country that watch, discuss and rate films, typically in one sitting. The CBFC enters the picture when a filmmaker contests an EC ruling. On paper, the CBFC is supposed to consist of eminent persons chosen by the Central Government, and ECs are to be constituted on the CBFC’s advice. In practice, CBFC and EC appointments have been treated by successive governments as political favours.
Nihalani’s selection as CBFC chief has been specifically derided because his embarrassingly low-brow filmography was ignored due to his proximity to the BJP’s parent organisation, RSS. Over the years, ECs too have been packed mostly with people who are not necessarily cinema literate but see themselves as India’s moral guardians. Even the previous CBFC headed by Leela Samson – arguably one of the most liberal Boards the country has seen – was handicapped by conservative ECs.
The difference though is that a liberal Board would empathise with filmmakers’ appeals against unreasonable EC rulings. Empathy or an intelligent understanding of artistic merit can hardly be expected from a producer of Nihalani’s calibre who decided to show that now-infamous, tacky Narendra Modi propaganda video in theatres earlier this month and defended the cutting of kisses in last week’s Bond film, Spectre.
The present Indian system is too arbitrary, too prone to political manipulation, too conservative and too steeped in ignorance of cinema. What the country needs is an independent ratings agency that sees itself as a partner of responsible parents and the film industry. Alternatively, we at least need governments that would be less brazen while picking political appointees. Pahlaj Nihalani is an all-time low.
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Her Twitter handle is @annavetticad)
BBC Hindi link:
Photograph courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/SpectreMovie/
Note: This photograph was not sourced from BBC Hindi
Photo caption: Film still showing Bond (Daniel Craig) and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) in Morocco