Society and Culture

Indian cinema does not need Pahlaj Nihalani or the CBFC

Good art must be able to hold up a mirror to society; not just depicting it in all its gory realism, but showing it what it can or should aspire to be.

Jul 28, 2017
By Vidya Subramanian 
Good art must be able to hold up a mirror to society; not just depicting it in all its gory realism, but showing it what it can or should aspire to be. Cinema, as an art form that is popular and easy to connect with, wields an immense amount of power, especially in a country like India. It is, of course entertainment; but it can also be so much more.
The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is tasked with certifying every film released for public viewing, so that audiences can know that whether content of a film could be potentially disturbing for their 10-year old children. But can a certification authority be allowed to control the content of every film made in the country? Pahlaj Nihalani, the current chairperson appears to think he can.
His latest edict decides that actors will no longer be allowed to be seen smoking or drinking on screen because “superstars who are followed by millions and who set an example in societal behaviour must not be shown drinking or smoking on screen unless the provocation for doing so is really strong”. Essentially, if an actor is seen smoking or drinking in a movie, it can expect to be certified ‘A’ — for adults only.
This attempt at making cinema a sort of Goebbels-ian propaganda machine to propagate a morality and value system approved by a conservative majoritarian patriarch is dangerous and detrimental to the country in general, and to cinematic arts in particular. Take for instance, the movie Lipstick Under my Burkha, which was denied a certificate (which means it cannot be screened at all) for being ‘lady-oriented’. Apparently the wishes and desires of women are so dangerous that no one in the country should be allowed to watch a movie about them.
Another case in point is the movie Aligarh, which depicts the real life Aligarh Muslim University professor Ramchandra Siras. By giving it an ‘A’ certificate, it was ensured that trailers of the movie could only played in theatres screening other ‘A’ certified movies, debilitating its marketing strategy. It is important to note that the blatant objectification of women that has become a hallmark of mainstream Indian cinema, in almost every language, appears to not draw the ire of this paragon of Indian morality.
This sort of attempt to stymie art sends the message that new and innovative stories have no place in our cinematic universe. Worse, it allows the perpetuation of the assumption that horribly violent sequences or the blatant objectification of women’s bodies are not only okay to show in movies, but okay to replicate in real life; for had they been wrong or in any other way objectionable, our moral police would have filtered it at the CBFC level.
Given the spate of cinema that wilfully accepts the “leave your brains at home” tag, the ‘masala’ filmmakers of India appear to have a really low opinion of the Indian moviegoer. It would seem that Pahlaj Nihalani agrees with this assessment, where audiences must have content filtered for them, so that they don’t leave a movie hall with the ‘wrong’ ideas. Which is why a James Bond kiss must be cut short, the word ‘lesbian’ must be beeped out, the words “Gujarat” and “cow” must be removed from documentaries, lest people in India remember the uncomfortable truths we have learned to sweep under the carpet.
If Indian cinema and art is to progress, it cannot, must not be shackled by the chains of the CBFC chairperson’s morality. For art to flourish, there need to be less control, not more.
Hindustan Times, July 28, 2017

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