Obscenity, religion, caste. Sentiments that are offended easily. A morality that is difficult to determine. In these confusing times, what do the members of the censor board themselves feel about cinema, asks Nisha Susan
WITH THE impending release of Kurbaan, bands of angry Sena men have been raging against Kareena Kapoor’s bare back in the film’s posters. The censors have given Kurbaan a straight ‘A’ certificate. Simultaneously, there are protests by other groups against London Dreams because of the alleged use of the Hanuman Chalisa in a song, and a demand for the ban of Tum Mile because producer Mahesh Bhatt’s son Rahul has been linked to alleged LeT operative David Headley. Questions about the nature of censorship boil continuously in India and taste is barely acknowledged while trying to balance freedom of speech and political correctness. So what do the people seated on the tinderbox – the members of the censor boards – themselves think?
Bengaluru-based researcher Lawrence Liang writes a mock-cinematic sequence in a paper on censorship. Flashback to 1996: the Andhra Pradesh High Court sends two‘lady advocates’ to investigate if a cinema hall is showing porn. After many obstacles (tickets, the doorman, the manager), they get into the hall. Liang writes, “Let us look more closely at the moment when the officers of the law are huddled together in a small dark room, with notepads and pens, watching a montage of images – what must that have been like? Was there a conspiratorial silence when the nude descended the stairs, or a nervous giggle when the camera lingered for a second too long on the French kiss?”
As Liang says, we are unlikely to ever find out what happened in that room. Till recently the idea of censors as poisontasters shaped our conception of them and certainly their self-conception. But instead of being oracular, they now want to be consumer advisory guides. They direct our attention instead to the extralegal forces that have created a culture of nervousness and insincere apologia – groups far more censorious than bureaucrats can ever be.
First, the basics. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), a government body certifies all films publicly exhibited in India. It has headquarters in Mumbai and nine regional centres. Every film in the country is watched by a regional officer and a committee of four (two of whom have to be women). This committee is drawn from each regional board’s advisory panel, which can be up to a hundred people. This advisory panel is meant to be a cross-section of society and sometimes experts (doctors, priests, etc).
The first pleasing realisation is the discovery that currently the regional officers are a group of cinema-loving civil servants. The Regional Officers of the CBFC are like missionaries marching into unknown lands armed only with the Bible of the Cinematograph Act and their convictions. Vinayak Azad, 39, was previously an officer of the Indian Revenue Service. As Regional Officer, Mumbai, he is at the heart of the biggest controversies of Indian popular culture. The first film Azad, the son of a Delhi theatrewalla, ever watched was Garam Hawa at age five. The first film he watched as censor was My Wife’s Murder. He has watched 500 films annually for the last four years. He is wary of telling people what he does for a living.
How does he decide on the certification of the films he watches? “Common sense is the most important thing. The Cinematograph Act lays down guidelines but you interpret them.” Azad is calm and self-effacing, making the MNS, which recently demanded an apology from Karan Johar (for using the word Bombay instead of Mumbai in Wake Up Sid) seem like a barbaric outpost.
WHILE EDITORIALS in favour of freedom of speech frequently ask why films are cut, Azad throws the ball back in the filmmakers’ court. He says film publicity frequently includes a buzz around anticipated censor cuts. “If filmmakers want to stay true to their vision and run their films with no cuts they should be comfortable taking the ‘A’ certificate. But they don’t want to limit their audience.” This was what Azad recommended recently in the case of Madhur Bhandarkar’s Jail, but the director instead chose to lose the much-publicised frontal nudity in favour of a U/A certificate.
Many regional officers advocate a stronger protection of freedom of speech to guard against poaching groups like the MNS and Shiv Sena. But they’re also uncomfortably aware of the old role they are currently trying to play down: that of the state’s moral custodians. “When someone wants to know whether to take his 10-year-old to the film, our certificate tells him what to do. I know people argue even Tom and Jerry is violent. It’s a tough call. But we don’t want to expose children to hardcore violence.”
His biggest dilemma is having to give a relatively ‘clean’ film an ‘A’ certificate because of an odd expletive or two: “Hearing the word ‘f**k’ is not going to make an adult berserk. But one has to make sure children are not exposed to that.” This attribution of maturity to the average viewer is common across the current regional officers.
What Azad calls “common sense” is his idea of propriety. Any number of factors affect a person’s response to cinema. But the censors are not allowed to rely on their convictions, they must also transport themselves into the mind of the elusive common man and imagine what he would be offended by. “We are supposed to grant the certificate within 10 minutes of watching the film as if we are a common viewer. Sometimes you wonder whether you made a mistake. But that’s an occupational hazard.” Ask Azad what offends him and he says, “Badly made films. I sometimes wish you could ban a lousy film.”