Will Nihalani exit spell reprieve for docu film makers?

BY GEETA SESHU| IN Media Freedom | 12/08/2017
Nihalani leaves behind a harsh legacy of unresolved court cases filed by documentary film-makers who made politically dissenting films.

Pahlaj  Nihalani trying to avoid the journalist from Mirror Now in the lift 


The removal of  Pahlaj Nihalani as Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has not come a moment too soon.  It is, of course, too early  to tell if the appointment of advertising creative director and lyricist Prasoon Joshi, also close to the ruling BJP government, will make any difference, but Nihalani leaves behind a harsh legacy of unresolved court cases filed by documentary film-makers whose politically dissenting films have been stonewalled by the board.

Apart from 'En Dino Muzaffarnagar' by the late Shubhradeep Chakravorty and Meera Chaudhary, and Jharna Jhaveri’s film ‘Charlie and the Coca Cola Company’, which are fighting a ban on the films in court, the latest was the Suman Ghosh documentary on economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. It which was denied a certificate unless it bleeped out the words ‘Hindu’, ‘India’, ‘cow’, ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Gujarat’.  And in the case of the Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla film on Arvind Kejriwal ‘An insignificant man’ the film-makers were told to get a ‘no objection certificate’ from Prime Minister Narendra Modi!

While a number of documentary film-makers have eschewed the film certification route, preferring to either release their films online or exhibit privately, these film-makers have stubbornly sought certification, believing that it is their right in a democracy to exercise their freedom to tell their truths. It is an ordeal in itself, as extended dates for court hearings end up making their films invisible.

Even the customary censor exemptions for films screened in exhibition venues are being denied, as was evident in denial of exemption for three films at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK) in June this year. The three films were ‘The Unbearable Being of Lightness’, by P.N. Ramachandra, on student protests following the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad, ‘March March March’, by Kathu Lukose on the student protests in JNU and ‘In the Shade of the Fallen Chinar’ by N.C. Fazil and Shawn Sebastian on the response of Kashmiri university students on the conflict in the Valley.

"Even the customary censor exemptions for films screened in exhibition venues are being denied"


But it wasn’t just the political content of documentary films that the outgoing CBFC chief had a problem with. Sexually explicit content or references to sexuality were huge bugbears. So also what Nihalani saw as the CBFC’s responsibility to preserve and protect cultural and social values,  in what turned out to be an extremely narrow and regressive prism.

Nihalani’s short tenure was marred with one controversy after the other, the latest being his police complaint against a reporter of Mirror Now for allegedly violating his privacy and harassing him when he refused to answer her questions. The journalist, who literally cornered him in the lift on his way to his office in the CBFC in Mumbai, persisted with asking a silent Nihalani to answer if he would release the trailer of the Sharukh Khan-starrer ‘When Harry met Sejal’ with the word ‘intercourse’ after the television channel garnered a lakh votes in its favour. Nihalani had reportedly said he would do so if a lakh people said they had no problem with the word ‘intercourse’ being used in the film.

"Nihalani’s short tenure was marred with one controversy after the other"


‘Intercourse’ was just one of the several words Nihalani had objections to. One of his first acts a month after taking over an CBFC chief in January 2015 was to issue a list of ‘banned’ words, 13 in English and another 11 in Hindi, apart from directives against violence against women, words with double meanings and the use of Bombay instead of Mumbai.

There were howls of protest against the list, which was loaded against any sexually explicit term of abuse or even words like ‘masturbating’. But Nihalani did not stop at that. Just about every film faced trouble at the board and film-makers had no clue what would finally make the cut.

A series of feature film began their journey to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) or to the courts when excessive cuts were demanded, certification denied or wrongly awarded till they eventually made their way to the screens. Last month, the release of the film ‘Lipstick under my burkha’, was denied a certificate on the grounds that : “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy about life. There are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused.”

The film was released after the FCAT, headed by former judge Manmohan Sarin, maintained that the examining committee and revising committee of the CBFC had ‘misdirected themselves in denying certification on the ground that the story of the film is women oriented’. The film director Alankrita Srivastava and producer Prakash Jha offered voluntary cuts in the length of the sex scenes, paving the way for the film’s certification.


Numerous cases, guidelines for ‘adults with caution’

But this was only the latest in a long list of films that got stuck in Nihalani’s straitjacket. The James Bond film Spectre, Anurag Kashyap’s film Udta Punjab, an order banning scenes of smoking or liquor consumption in films (not just a disclaimer in a corner of the screen), the ban on ‘Haramkhor for showing a relationship between a school teacher and his student which was overturned by the FCAT and Mohalla Assi, which ended up being leaked online after being denied a certificate for allegedly profane dialogues.

What with the unseemly exit of Leela Samson as CBFC chairperson and the controversies surrounding Nihalani, there was considerable debate over the role of the CBFC – popularly known to function as the censor board but actually meant to be a board for certification of films for public exhibition.

The appointment of the Shyam Benegal committee in January 2016 renewed this debate but alas, even this effort seems to be a missed opportunity. There were hardly any widespread public consultations or discussions and the committee submitted its report in April and June 2016. It said films could be denied certification if they violated provisions specified in Sec 5B(1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952 or when content in a film crosses the ceiling laid down in the highest category of certification (Sec 5B(1) essentially reproduces the reasonable restrictions in the Constitution under Art 19(2) for film certification).

Interestingly, its report said that certification guidelines must protect children and adults from potentially harmful or unsuitable content. Quite unmindful of the notion that this would also infantilize adults, it proposed a new sub-category called ‘adults with caution’ in the ‘A’ category, along with the ‘U’ category. The UA category, it recommended, could be broken up into further sub-categories – UA12+ & UA15+. It also proposed a more complicated set of ‘General Guidelines, Issue Related Guidelines and Category Specific Guidelines’.

It remains to be seen whether these categorizations or certifications will be just plain censorship all over again. Despite its recommendation for the formation of a more broad-based board to decide on certification, it is clear that decisions will still lie, not with a board drawn from civil society but with the Information and Broadcasting (I & B) Ministry. Successive I & B ministers in this NDA government (there have been four in the last three years - Prakash Jawadekar, Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu and now Smriti Irani) - may have made token statements against censorship but the true test will be with the documentaries that tell stories of fact, not fiction. 


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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