By Sudish Kamath
Though uphill, the battle against the censor board is one that must be fought by filmmakers given how toothless the government has been in saving their work from scissor-happy autocrats
If culture is the new opium of the people, the chief of the Central Board for Film Certification Pahlaj Nihalani is the drug lord controlling all business in this town.
Udta Punjab is the latest example of the autocratic, arbitrary nature of the unchallenged power given to the certification body that continues to censor films under assorted excuses. This time around, it has a problem with profanity, drug use and representation of Punjab and Punjabis.
Last year, after The Hindu leaked a recorded conversation where Nihalani is heard dictating what he thinks are permissible words for adults, the CBFC chief completely banned phones or cameras or any recording device in his cabin.
Mr. Nihalani was heard offering dubbing solutions to the young filmmakers. “You can dub g**** with Mirchi and Mother***** can be dubbed as maikalaal.”
Mukesh Bhatt, President of the Film and TV Producers Guild of India, rather naively, believed that it was the most fruitful meeting with the Ministry in years.
Pahlaj Nihalani took charge in January 2015.
Somewhere in the middle of these 18 months of Pahlaj-run CBFC, I had my own first hand experience of the autocracy when my serialised anthology ‘X Past is Present’ — directed by 11 filmmakers — was screened for certification in the first week of November 2015. The idea was to build a bridge between the different cinemas of India.
Being a former journalist, I decided to record the post-screening cut negotiation with the CBFC’s examining committee. After being told to adhere to Pahlaj’s guidelines on profanity, we pleaded to the examining committee to allow cuss-words only in Kaushik Mukherjee’s portion of the film given that Q (as Kaushik is known) represented the underground, anti-establishment cinema in the country.
We argued that it would be unfair to the filmmaker to mute the voice of angst especially when the character is off-screen.
The committee then reviewed the portion of the film we had appealed for exemption. To our relief, they agreed to let us retain the profanity for Q’s portion. Or so we thought.
We executed the cuts on the basis of the recorded negotiation in the absence of an official cut-list and submitted the DVD as proof of cuts made. The CBFC gave us a Censor certificate on November 18 (for the November 20 release) and also issued the official show cause (cut-list) on the same date - ONE week after the submission of cuts. Except that the time-code of the exemption they had agreed upon and time-code of the exemption mentioned in the list didn’t quite match.
When we requested for the corrected cut-list as per our recording, we were told not to ever mention that we had recorded the negotiation because that would upset the CBFC chief.
After making us wait for a couple of hours and making us deposit our phones outside, Nihalani met us for one whole minute.
Within that window, we made our case. We told him we had submitted a DVD with the cuts as agreed upon to the best of our understanding in the absence of a written cut list. If those were not the cuts that were agreed upon, how and why would the CBFC issue a certificate?
He called the examining officer to re-open the sealed DVD and re-issue the list according “to the records”.
In the next ten minutes, the DVD was played back to us and we pointed out how it was consistent to our understanding of the negotiation. But the five members of the examining committee had signed off to the erroneous cut-list that exempted one minute that didn’t feature any profanity.
The officer then told us: “Obviously, there’s some confusion or misunderstanding. But since five members have signed, you have to follow this cut-list. We cannot call them back for a review now. You have to go to the revising committee.” We had spent all of November 19 at the CBFC office to be told this. With four hours to go for the premiere.
We reminded him that we already had our certificate in hand and released the film consistent with the cuts we had submitted. When the DVD is ever opened in court, it would become obvious that the CBFC made a mistake.
But take a moment to let this sink in.
The CBFC had indeed issued a censor certificate without exactly knowing what the cuts or exemptions were.
All the more arbitrary was the fact that the CBFC later refused to recertify the film as UA for TV because of the theme (filmmaker haunted by memories of the women in his life) and the studio didn’t want to challenge it.
The truth is that most studios and production companies in India do not budget for the time (three months to a year) and money (anywhere between a lakh to 10 per cent of production budget) it takes to fight the autocracy of CBFC through the available channels – including the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal and then different levels of courts.
Though each cut-list refers to Pahlaj’s guidelines as “recommendations,” they are hardly just that. Recommendation makes the courts believe that the CBFC merely suggested these cuts and the filmmakers made these cuts out of their own free will. But the truth is that certification is denied until the cuts are made.
According to reports, the CBFC has given no official show-cause of cuts YET for Udta Punjab. Cuts are “conveyed.”
Nothing on paper that can be published or leaked to the media. Nothing that can even be remotely used as proof of cultural policing.
Every filmmaker who wants to preserve his artistic integrity will need to make going to court the norm and say no to cuts and cultural bullying. Though uphill, it’s a battle that needs to be fought in the courts given how toothless the government has been in saving films from scissor-happy autocrats. Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore is yet to walk the talk.
When the government is unable to withhold Article 19 and provide artists the basic right of freedom of speech and expression, it’s time to rethink support to political parties that are pro-censorship.
The Shyam Benegal led committeesubmitted its recommendations for the revamp of the CBFC in April.
The government is still sitting on it.