(This piece contains spoilers to A Star Is Born, Bambi and Majboor.)
It was a particularly tender moment in the recent remake of A Star is Born when the characters played by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper consummate their relationship after a burgeoning romance. Alas, this moment was ruined in seconds when the projection system developed a malfunction and a translucent circular bubble appeared on the screen. Out of sheer exasperation, I had the urge to direct the four letter word at the projectionist that also describes the act unfolding on screen. In a second, the apparition-like bubble began to move. The immersive quality of the film had made me forget that this was the doings of our overenthusiastic certification board, the Central Board of Film Certification. Obviously, the bubble was to obscure the breasts of Lady Gaga in an already low-lit scene.
But the film was certified “A” which means only individuals over the age of 18 are legally allowed in the cinema. The age of consent in India is 18 years. An 18-year-old can view the human anatomy in its entirety in real life but according to the CBFC, the sight of the same human anatomy on a big screen can inflict inexplicable harm. The CBFC showed great inconsistency all through the film. There were no bubbles for a very brief glimpse of full-frontal female nudity. The word “fuck” that was pervasive and frequent was allowed, but “whore”, “asshole”, “son of a bitch” and “goddamned” were muted.
There were the customary warnings about the hazards of smoking whenever a cigarette was lit, but there were no warning messages during scenes that depicted drug use or when an individual was preparing to commit suicide (I hope I’m not giving the CBFC ideas). The film did begin with a notice that it “did not intend to promote or glorify the use or consumption of prohibited drugs and narcotic substances in any manner”. Let me remind you again, this was a film meant for adults only.
So this is where we are today—a certification board that operates like a kite flying through a hurricane. There is a great deal of capriciousness in what is permitted and what is not. Perhaps the onus lies on the filmmaker to convince the powers that be at the CBFC to pass their content. There seems to be almost no trust in an adult citizen who is yet trusted by the Constitution to vote a government in and out of power.
As an absolutist for freedom of expression, I firmly believe that no content should ever be censored. But it is beyond debate that not every type of content should be accessible to the audience of every age. There will be those who say that all types of content are easily available on the Internet which makes restrictions superfluous. By that argument, all laws should be abandoned with because many citizens have found ways to circumvent or violate them.
In recent times, the CBFC was under heavy fire during the tenure of Pahlaj Nihalani. The word “sanskari”, which literally means cultured, was used in a pejorative manner by those who know nothing about Indian culture, to suggest that Nihalani’s mentality was from the Stone Age.
A tipping point was reached when Nihalani began to mess with James Bond, 007 himself, for the film Spectre. Here, the length of kissing scenes was reduced to qualify for a UA certificate that would allow unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for children below the age of 12. The outrage was considerable. There were demands made for Nihalani’s ouster and, like every other occurrence since May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was blamed. Interestingly, for the Bond film Casino Royale in 2006, the CBFC reduced the length of lovemaking and torture scenes for an identical reason. But this was during the “liberal” and “forward-thinking” United Progressive Alliance regime, hence all was forgiven. I do believe this might be the only article in the world that dares to compare the treatment of James Bond by the National Democratic Alliance and the UPA. In 2013, also during UPA rule, Woody Allen declined to release his film Blue Jasmine in India because the CBFC insisted on including warnings on the hazards of smoking.
Nihalani himself went on record to say that he was not the supreme leader of the CBFC, he does not control the fate of every film, and that the working of the board had not changed, i.e. the CBFC was merely following the prescribed guidelines. Despite what you think of the man, he was right. For real change to occur, it doesn’t matter which government is in power or who is the chairman.
Let’s look at the way things stand. We begin with the guidelines. The objective states that a film has to be responsible, understanding of the values of society, provide wholesome entertainment and be responsible for social change. But a film is what the filmmaker wants to express and nothing more. Morality plays no role here. There may be films that preach morality but there can never be a compulsion.
A great deal of emphasis is placed on restricting “vulgarity”, sexual content, content that can cause “offense”, content that can be regarded as contempt of court, pointless or avoidable scenes of violence, cruelty, and horror, scenes of violence primarily intended to provide entertainment. Based on these guidelines, I can even take one of the greatest family entertainers of all times—The Sound of Music—and find scenes that are fit to be cut.
There is seldom much consideration for themes that can cause distress, especially for children. As a child, I recall being deeply disturbed by two films. The first was Bambi, which depicted a bird getting decapitated by gunshot and the overall theme of the titular deer being orphaned after his mother is killed. The other was the film Majboor—the scenes of Amitabh Bachchan in excruciating pain after a tumour-induced migraine, and another scene that had Bachchan being marched to the gallows and the ominous black cloak is placed on his head. Ironically both these films were rated “U”, which means there was no restriction for the audiences. But none of the content of the Bond films, that were rated for “adult only” back in the 1980s, caused any such trauma.
On the ratings front, we currently have “U” (unrestricted public exhibition) and “A” (restricted to adult audiences), but two other categories were added in June 1983—“UA” (unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for children below the age of 12) and, saving the best for last, “S” (restricted to specialised audiences such as doctors or scientists).
Clearly, there is a dire need for reform at the CBFC. The focus needs to be on certification and not censorship. There is a need for a broader range of certificates—in addition to U and A, UA can be replaced with PG (Parental Guidance) and accompany it an age-appropriate recommendation as they do in the US like PG-13, PG-14, etc.
A child psychologist must review each film keeping in mind what could be potentially traumatic for children, and not merely scenes of sexual content or gore. The CBFC website needs to explicitly state the nature of the content so people can decide prior to watching a film. It is essential that a film certified A be shown the way the filmmaker intended, without even a second redacted.
Back in 2002, filmmaker and actor Vijay Anand was the only one who dared to suggest reforms as chairman of the CBFC. He even recommended the legalisation of pornographic films and the need for a new rating—XA—to be added. Alas, the powers that be did not approve and Anand quit. In 2016, filmmaker Shyam Benegal headed a committee aimed to re-establish CBFC as a certification board rather than a censor board, but the report went largely ignored by the powers that be.
In a country such as ours where there is abject poverty and a lack of proper health care, education and infrastructure even in the most advanced of cities, reforming the censor board is the last thing that any government has on its mind. Perhaps because we regard films as a work of frivolity.
But reforms may actually be needed from the grassroots. We need to introduce film appreciation in our education system so the general public realises that cinema is a serious form of art. If, as a nation, we begin to respect the art form, governments will automatically be compelled to act. Even better, the individuals who have been educated to appreciate cinema will eventually end up at the CBFC.
With all the amazing advancements taking place all over the country, we simply cannot allow the undemocratic practice of a few adults deciding what 1.32 billion adults can watch.