“We don’t understand this – delete this, delete that!” the judges at the Bombay High Court exclaimed on Thursday, according to a report on the case against the censor board (actually, CBFC - Central Board of Film Certification) filed by film personality Anurag Kashyap, contesting the 94 cuts ordered by the board before allowing public screening of the film 'Udta Punjab'.
The spat between the makers of the film and CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani has turned pretty sordid. Mr Kashyap called Mr Nihalani a "chamcha" of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In turn, Mr Nihalani accepted he was, but insinuated that Mr Kashyap had received financial gratification from the Aam Aadmi Party to make a feature film on Punjab, ahead of the assembly elections, to show the Akali-BJP government in poor light.
While critics and knowing audiences all over India will probably attest overwhelmingly that Anurag Kashyap is a better filmmaker than Pahlaj Nihalani, the questions being addressed by the high court are those that can be answered, in a strictly legal sense, by only Mr Nihalani and his fellow members in the CBFC panel. That he is a self-confessed "chamcha" of PM Modi is legally irrelevant. "Should I be the chamcha of the Italian PM?" he apparently asked the hostile media, in what might be seen in his own friendly circle as searing wit.
Justices SC Dharmadhikari and Shalini Phansalkar-Joshi, happily enough for Mr Kashyap and filmmakers everywhere, seem to be frowning fiercely on CBFC. But it is troubling that filmmakers, harassed by Mr Nihalani and team, should look to the courts for relief. With the deepest respect for the jobs they do, it must be stated clearly and boldly that courts are not the best-equipped instruments to judge whether a film is good or bad or ugly. When the eminent judges say, "We don’t understand this...," we should pay heed.
It was a long time ago, but some readers will surely recall the controversy over the song 'Choli ke peeche kya hai' (What is behind the blouse?) from the Subhash Ghai movie 'Khalnayak' in the 1990s. An advocate by the name of RP Chugh, a BJP supporter - as reports had it then - was morally outraged by the lyrics. He filed a petition before the Delhi High Court, even while the movie was still in production. There is an urban myth that a legally-constituted examining committee saw the video of the song 13 times before it decided that it could indeed be screened to our eager audiences.
I think it is a real problem if this becomes the norm. Firstly, hand-picked 'chamchas' of a party or government will use the powers informing CBFC to target filmmakers and films on political angles. Then courts will take up the challenge to CBFC made by an unwavering filmmaker and decide what is suitable for viewing, or not, as the case may be. And, even if the challenge holds and obtains legal sanction, it is entirely possible - and often likely as we have seen - that a film will not get a release in some states and areas because mobs instigated by political busybodies will threaten theatres that screen the contested film with arson and violence.
What we should seek is a self-regulating code of certification by the entertainment industry, without any interference by the Union or state governments. The USA system is a good model for India, where the motion-picture industry survives, indeed thrives, without state funding or large subsidies. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) system simply rates a feature or documentary film's suitability for a given audience. It is a voluntarily-observed code by filmmakers, not enforced by law. A mature public understands the rating system and decides what to see or skip. A censor board by any name is ridiculous in the age of Internet and Google.
In the last week of April this year, a committee appointed by the Modi government and headed by filmmaker Shyam Benegal, submitted its report suggesting changes to the venerable and sanskaari Cinematograph Act, 1952. One of the crucial recommendations of the panel is that the chairman of CBFC and its members should not have a daily, hands-on engagement with the process of certification. Just this one recommendation, if implemented, will spare Mr Nihalani and his team of zealous moralists from the pain of taking regular offence with titillation and political purpose, allow him time to make his hagiographic videos for the government and PM Modi and save filmmakers from many of the tedious processes of CBFC.
The Benegal committee, headed by India's most-respected filmmaker, also has film stalwarts Kamal Hassan and Om Prakash Mehra, ad-filmmaker Piyush Pandey, filmmaker Goutam Ghose, and film journalist Bhawana Somaaya among its members. The Union government, which has much work to do, should simply trust that these people know better, accept the recommendations and save itself from the embarrassment it is subjected to by its loyal subjects like Mr Nihalani. Frankly, he is a nuisance. What is alarming is that he seems to enjoy being one.
The Benegal panel recommends that the CBFC, already an anachronism, should think of certification over censorship, take it easy when interpreting legally-fraught words like "public order", "decency" or "morality", and, as mentioned earlier, "the board, including Chairman, should only play the role of a guiding mechanism for the CBFC, and not be involved in the day-to-day affairs of certification of films." Crucially, the panel says the government should not have a direct hand in appointing 'Examining Committee members', that scary body of outraging persons, who can mangle or stall any film.
All this is still not as good as the MPAA system, where the government and even courts, are rarely involved, but it is a start. These recommendations may still not prevent mob-enforced censorship, but at least it minimises the opportunity to heat up the atmosphere before the release of an edgy film. Mr Jaitley must humbly accept that he knows less about cinema than finance and let go. He should ideally also let go Mr Nihalani and concentrate on urgent other stuff. Another worrisome Parliament session is coming up. There are bills to go and promises to keep....