Actor Tom Alter, at the launch of my book That’s News to Me: A Presswallah’s Journey, told the gathering he was all for censorship of films. This was quite a shocker, as most prominent stars of the film industry came out in support of Udta Punjab when it was facing 31 cuts by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The High Court ruled that the board, formerly and informally called the Censor Board, is only supposed to certify films as U (Universal), A (Adult) or UA (Parental Discretion) and not do moral policing. Now the film is facing over 100 cuts in Pakistan, where the board has stated it never allows on “anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan and anti-society content in a film.” No dilemmas there.
Since the BJP came to power two years ago, the liberati has been quite apprehensive about Hindu conservative elements enforcing their own ideas of culture (sanskriti). Pahlaj Nihalani has been labeled as undeserving of heading CBFC just like Gajender Chauhan, who was sent to head Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). The latter was condemned before he took a single step to prove his competence or otherwise. But Nihalani deserved the flak he got, as he wanted to protect the image of Punjab by removing all references to the state and its cities. No wonder film folk were hopping mad.
However, it is ironic that the court, while declaring itself against censorship, decided to wield the scissors and cut off one scene it found too offensive. We were told that it showed Shahid Kapoor’s character urinating. At the event, Tom mentioned that the scene showed him aiming at the audience. Now isn’t that offensive beyond endurance?
Logically, it follows that other sections of society could find other scenes reprehensible. As a woman, the first time I saw Shilpa Shetty’s song ‘UP-Bihar lootne’ I was horrified. Then came Bipasha Basu’s ‘Beedi jalai le’ on the exact same lines, visually. And Katrina Kaif’s ‘Sheila ki jawani’. Even Madhuri Dixit mouthed suggestive lyrics like ‘Punjab se leke UP via Agra’. Tom suggested that we should put pressure on actresses not to agree to do vulgar scenes. He himself does admonish them, whereupon they justify their ‘acts’ for the money it brings.
Artistic licence is taken too far when women are demeaned, just because it’s a male-dominated world. In fact, Indian feminists made a historical blunder 25 years ago when they stopped pulling down obscene posters and allowed all kinds of indecency. A prominent feminist confessed recently that they did this because they didn’t want their ideology to resemble the BJP’s too closely. My view is that feminists fell into a trap laid by the Congress-Left combine for electoral gain. The BJP rose to power anyway — and now that it is here, it is not taking any steps to confine women to the kitchen. All the fears were unfounded. Instead, the feminists lost an opportunity to stop the glamour industry from making women expose so much skin in advertisements and films. Why shouldn’t Bollywood, with its great influence on India, also develop a sense of responsibility?
For too long, the industry has sexually exploited women — and men — who are desperate for stardom. As Tom pointed out, some of Raj Kapoor’s films did this to a reprehensible degree. He recalled the film Bazaar, which kept violence offscreen — when it was essential to the story — instead of showing it in gory detail onscreen. So next time, if you have a choice, go to the theatre instead of a cinema hall and watch Tom Alter’s solo performance as Maulana Azad or Sahir Ludhianvi. Let art elevate you, not arouse your animal instincts. And please don’t mindlessly advocate freedom of expression, not when it violates the norms of civilised society. Certainly not so that film-makers can generate more black money for the parallel economy.