It could be a fight sequence in any 80s potboiler: Jackie Shroff and Aditya Pancholi punch and kick each other with the requisite dhishum-dhishum. Yet, the Censor Board found it objectionable enough to cut it.
Contrast this with recent times: Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, with its almost lyrically portrayed violence was cleared with minor changes and an A-certificate, while the 2012 blood-and-gore fest Agneepath was cleared with a U/A certificate.
While earlier, scenes with overt sexual tones almost always ended up on the censors’ hit list, in 2011, The Dirty Picture was passed without any cuts. U-certified movies such as Band Baaja Baraat or Jab We Met feature kissing scenes and nobody objects. Are audiences and film censorship in India, famous for erring on the side of prudery, finally maturing? A change in nomenclature is a definite indicator. The Censor Board is now called the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), its aim no longer to snip, but to certify films based on categories.
Since its birth, the Board has been taxed with the task of being an arbiter of taste, and has been castigated as conservative. “After 1947, things which were earlier permissible were no longer acceptable,” said film critic and Board member Shubhra Gupta. For Indian cinema, that meant: exit kissing scenes, enter symbolism.
Add to that the diversity of the Indian audience. “India is not homogenous, people living in different parts have differing levels of exposure and the Board has to take everybody into account,” said Pankaja Thakur, CEO, CBFC.
In the past year, the Board has shed its heavy-handedness and become more liberal, notably in the depiction of on-screen intimacy. But this one step forward has been accompanied with two steps back when it comes to representations of caste, religion, politics or the nation. In February, the CBFC denied approval to the Bengali film Kangal Malsat, which was critical of Mamata Banerjee.
But those who accuse the censors of scrutinising with scissors-in-hand must also turn their attention to another kind of censorship – by sections of the public itself. Though Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam was passed by the CBFC in 2013, religious and political groups demanded an immediate ban, delaying the film’s release.
Be it self-appointed moral guardians or political-religious groups, we are a nation of objectors, where everybody’s ‘sensibilities’ are hurt with rather alarming frequency. “Everybody has the right to be offended, especially on any issue related to caste, community, region or religion,” said film scholar and CBFC member Ira Bhaskar. “We have to ask ourselves, are we turning into a society where it is impossible to say anything at all?”