Pahlaj Nihalani, the chief of the Central Board of Film Certification, wanted 89 cuts to the film Udta Punjab. The Bombay high court cut him down to just one and today he stands suitably chastised, but unembarrassed about his attempts to curtail freedom of expression. In ancient Rome, he would have won.
To film-maker Anurag Kashyap’s ears, Nihalani’s demands sounded like a command issuing from a dictator. The post that Nihalani imagines he occupies was first instituted in the 6th century BCE by a legendary king of Rome, Servius Tullius, long before Rome became a republic. We know of him thanks to the likes of Cicero and Livy, who filled the 1st century BCE with Rome’s mythological past to remind their people of the Roman way.
The first job of a censor was to count heads and maintain a register of people, their lands and property, including slaves and cattle, and rank, all this always helpful for that other age-old ill: taxation. Only after that was he to consider his second duty, the keeping of public morals, or Regimen morum (the Latin term differed depending on whether you lived in a time of republic or empire). This made him a dangerous person to cross. The punishment meted out is from where the modern word gets its meaning: he would cut you out of his list of citizens, or have you ejected from the Senate, or decide you really didn’t have it in you to be a Patrician. All this for any number of offences, ranging from private bedroom romps to public immorality to anything that might stain the character of Rome herself. In today’s parlance, he would simply censor you. Mr Nihalani’s supporters may not know it, but this is from where the seeking of licence to protect “sanskar”, or tradition, begins.
This is also the problem.
Mr Nihalani’s attitude belongs to an age in which dictators, emperors and states suppressed individual freedoms, a time long since dead, killed by knowledge and accumulated wisdom paid for in countless lives over the centuries. The past was a bloody place.
But if only Mr Nihalani really was a censor. The deleting of parts of a film by one person, or a committee, in India should never have been allowed. The job of the Central Board of Film Certification is implicit in its title. Certification does not require scissors and acetone. The word “censor” forms no part of the body’s title nor is it mentioned in the Cinematograph Act of
1952, at least not after the early Eighties when the rules were revised and the organisation once known as the Central Board of Film Censors came by its current name.
The early 20th century censor boards were in the hands of the chiefs of police of the Presidencies of the Raj, which might explain the policeman attitude and the gross misinterpretation of the law on the subject, whether for political reasons or for reasons of cinematic taste. In this case, the latter is unlikely.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that Augustus, who ended the Roman Republic, was the last to appoint a censor. From then on, the post was subsumed by the emperors themselves. A democracy has no place for emperors....