Censoring the arts in 2017: advent of the NOC!

In a bad year for creative freedom an astonishing variety of reasons were cited for censorship, even as the courts upheld filmmakers’ rights in some cases.

Clockwise from top: Padmavati, The Argumentative Indian, Shunyota, Indu Sarkar, Modi Ka Gaon, and Mersal


Film-making is challenge in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic democracy. Particularly if offence-takers are indulged. But each year the propensity to take offence, or to pander to offence-taking, seems to scale new heights.  In 2017 the travails of film makers made news throughout the year.

The impetus for film censorship ranged from preserving social mores to socio-political and political  considerations.  Social and cultural groups with political backing  stalled films,  and even  films that drew inspiration from current history made the certification body nervous.  A new  bar was set for acceptability: get a no-objection-certificate from those mentioned in  the film before we permit you to show it!

As the mandatory requirement for certification translated into bald censorship,   both historical and political  subjects became anathema to a range of actors, from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and its certification arm, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC),  to protestors on the street.


Padmavati’s travails

The abiding images and longest running headlines this year were about the film Padmavati. For a government and a polity intent on ‘upholding the honour of Hindu women’, creative imagination is an offence and such film-making demands intervention, which is an euphemism for allowing censorship both by mob and political fiat. You cannot allow a Muslim invader and Hindu queen separated by more than two centuries  in recorded history and in poetry,  to be brought together in fiction.

Much of 2017 was  a roller coaster ride for the makers of the film. In January,  the director was attacked and the sets destroyed. In February, the Shri Rajput Karni Sena (SRKS) demanded pre-censorship of historical films. March saw ministers of the Rajasthan state government pander to the Karni Sena, the Rashtriya Brahman Mahasangh and the Rajasthan Vaishya Mahasabha over their objections to the film.

Momentum against the film built up again in the last quarter of the year with the governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat  saying they wanted Padmavati to be banned or have ‘objectionable content’ removed.  

Cabinet Minister Uma Bharti joined the battle in November on Twitter asserting that the pride of  the Indian woman was at stake.  Rajasthan in particular remained the hotbed of protests against Padmavati with the Karni Sena, other local organizations and former royal families demonstrating publicly against it.


Mass demonstrations by Rajputs were also witnessed in Gujarat in November 2017. The BJP’s media coordinator in Haryana offered a prize of Rs 10 crore to anyone who would behead the film’s director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and actress Deepika Padukone  and the Karni Sena threatened to cut off Padukone’s nose. Meanwhile as of the last week of December,

the censor board has asked the erstwhile Mewar royal family to join a panel to help certify Padmavati.  And certification remained a receding goal.


Political discourse and censorship

The CBFC was particularly sensitive to content with references to political figures, words and events.  For films like Modi Ka Gaon, Indu Sarkar and An Insignificant Man, the board ordered that the makers get no objection certificates from the politicians who were being referred to in the films.


Modi Ka Gaon is about Narendra Modi’s development agenda and is a tribute to his policies. The film makers were ordered to get a no objection certificate from Modi. Indu Sarkar is a reference to the emergency years under the Congress rule of Indira Gandhi while An Insignificant Man traces the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal as a key leader of the party. In January, the CBFC had ordered the censoring of a reference to Rahul Gandhi in the film Coffee with D.

The CBFC  was sensitive to references to current politics. The Argumentative Indian – a documentary about Nobel laureate Amartya Sen -  has actually been denied censor board clearance because the film’s director refused to beep words like ‘Hindutva’, ‘cow’ and Gujarat’.  The words ‘Patidar’ and ‘Patel’were beeped from the film Hamein Haq Chahiye Haq Se, which  has many scenes reminiscent of the Patidar quota movement in Gujarat. And the makers of Power of Patidar (which was denied certification in 2016) wrote to the prime minister in 2017 and made other efforts to get it released, but to no avail. This too is a film on the same movement.

The trailer of the Tamil film Neelam about the Sri Lankan civil war was denied certification in October on the grounds that it could affect relations between the two countries. The trailer runs for about four minutes and 30 seconds: the filmmaker wondered how it could pose a threat to relations between the two countries.

Current affairs-related documentaries did not have a much better fate. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting refused to allow the screening of three films at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala. These films, ‘In the Shade of Fallen Chinar’, ‘March March March’and the ‘Unbearable Being of Lightness’, covered issues such as the conflict in Kashmir, student agitations, and atrocities against dalit students.

Films which had references to current events such as  demonetisation, GST and communal riots  too faced a tough time getting censor approval. Mersal had references to GST and Shunyota to demonetisation.

Sharanam Gachchami was first denied and then granted certification. The film dealt with caste and reservations, highlighting atrocities committed in the name of caste. The director, Enumala Prem Raj, said the film referred to the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the flogging of dalits at Una, and the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri.

Violence accompanied censorship: before the film received certification, the Censor Board’s regional office in Hyderabad was ransacked by six students of the Osmania University Joint Action Committee who were later booked by the police.

The CBFC also refused to clear Colour of Darkness, a film about racial and caste bias in India and Australia, for public exhibition. The censor board opposed  the differences between the English subtitles and the Gujarati dialogues. The dalit film director, GK Makwana, had to settle for a private screening.

Given the new heights of film censorship scaled by the CBFC in 2017,the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT)was kept busy.  In the case of Modi Ka Gaon, Indu Sarkar and An Insignificant Man, it  overturned the CBFC orders after the  respective film makers appealed against the latter’s demands.   It did not, however, permit the release of Power of the Patidar.


What the CBFC was  allergic to

While the CBFC is a statutory body primarily responsible for certifying moving images, it censors words and references ceaselessly, as this analysis makes clear.  In 2017 it had problems with the following:

Abusive language was a major issue, with the censor board disallowing such language in a string of films. Intimate scenes also did not pass muster, prominently in movies like Lipstick under My Burkha and Ka Bodyscapes. Lipstick under My Burkha was found to be too ‘lady-oriented’. The board also had a problem with its many sexual scenes and abusive language.

Scenes of smoking and drinking, violence against women, homosexuality and reference to caste were other grounds for censoring.  Films like Sexy Durga ran into trouble with the censor board, forcing a change in the title to S. Durga. Despite the title change and orders of the Kerala High Court to screen the film at the International Film Festival of India, Goa, the film was not screened.

Ravi Jadhav’s Marathi film Nude was also denied a screening at the festival on the orders of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting , despite it being selected by the jury for screening.


Change of guard at the censor board

Given how controversial CBFC chairman Pahlaj Nihalani had become, the central government appointed a new chairperson, lyricist and advertising man Prasoon Joshi in August.  But before he relinquished his post, Nihalani ended liquor consumption on screen, especially by leading men. Liquor bottles on display in frames were to be blurred as well. He argued that superstars are followed by millions and must set an example. In Munna Michael, Nawazuddin Siddiqui couldn’t be shown drinking though he played a gangster.  The CBFC decreed that films showing alcohol consumption would get an A certificate.

Joshi’s tenure began with the banning of the film X Zone for graphic scenes of nudity, the trimming of love-making scenes in Ribbon, and the cutting of  kissing and love making scenes by 50 per cent in the Hollywood film American Made

Yet in the case of Andres Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It,  though the examining committee ordered cuts of visuals of horror and many profanities, Joshi stepped in to overturn all the cuts, including the profanities. Clearly the new chairman does not intend to be predictable.



Issues on which Indian films were censored or blocked by CBFC or citizenry:


Instances of censorship in the states



Government bodies



Supreme Court

Bombay High Court




Religious and cultural  groups:


Political organisations and politicians

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena


Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath

Bharatiya Janata Party

Suraj Pal Amu, BJP media coordinator in Haryana

Sanjay Nirupam, Mumbai Regional Congress Committee


Individuals and families

Woman claiming to be Sanjay Gandhi’s daughter

Writ petition and public interest litigation filed by individuals

Gangsters like Chota Shakeel


Professional bodies

Production Houses

Internet companies

Films Denied Certification in 2017


Censorship of events

Issue: The Minstry felt that the film title would hurt religious sentiments. The second film Nude is about a poor woman who works as a nude model for art students.

Issue: MNS argued that the revenue generated may fund terror activities against India. Mika had apparently tweeted that people join him in celebrating the independence day celebration of India and ‘apna Pakistan’

Issue:  Hurting Tamil culture and promoting leftist and Dravidian ideologies; participants making  obscene statements.

Issue: Showed women in a pejorative manner and  hurtful towards the downtrodden. Petitioner said his family was uncomfortable while viewing it because of the obscene behaviour and dress code of females on the show.

Issue: In the Shade of Fallen Chinar, March March March and the Unbearable Being of Lightness were the banned documentaries. The films are about the trouble in Kashmir, JNU’s student agitation and Rohit Vemula. Reason not stated in the order.

Issue: Only bhajans to be played, no film or vulgar songs.

Issue: The film was about a love story between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman at the time of the Babri Masjid demolition.

Issue: Its makers were recreating a Pakistani city in Rajasthan.

Issue: Alleged that the film tarnishes Rajput honour.

Issue: Unhealthy for children and can lead to unhealthy practices.


Upholders of artistic freedom