The Central Board of Film Certification in India under is commonly referred to as the Censor Board. A quick glance at some of its heavily debated recent decisions will elucidate why. While primary role of the CBFC is to provide certification for different categories of films, it is also entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that films do transgress one of the express restrictions of free speech in India. This has meant that from time to time, the CBFC has withheld permission for the screening of films or requested specific cuts and changes to the story. More recently, this has become commonplace rather than the exception.
The biggest theme that the CBFC under Chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani appears to be at war against depictions of sexuality. Recently, the film The Danish Girl was denied the required certification to be aired on TV as its topic was declared as overly sensitive and accordingly required too many cuts. The film looks at sex reassignment and gender dysphoria. Ka Bodyscapes was similarly denied certification as it apparently glorified homosexual relationships and contained vulgarity, depicted Hinduism in a derogatory manner, and also depicted a Muslim woman masturbating.
This war is not just against depictions of desire among sexual minorities, as evidenced by the CBFC’s halt on the screening of Lipstick Under My Burkha. The stated reason for this ban was that the film was too “lady-oriented” and had abusive words, audio pornography, and was potentially sensitive to some sections (implying the Muslim community). These bans and others have been banded together as evidence that the CBFC is extremely skittish about depictions of sexual desire. Adding to the fray, kissing scenes are routinely cut out of the television screenings of movies, and abusive words are muted even in films about verbal violence or abuse.
This trigger-happy censorship environment has a larger context in the specific demands of cultural groups and morality crusaders. While the CBFC seems happy to lead by example, political parties, cultural representatives, and religious groups add to this growing trend towards censorship. The film Parched for instance faced opposition for depictions of female nudity in Udta Punjab, which discussed drug abuse, faced opposition for its use of language and violence and its portrayal of the state of Punjab. Alleged distortion of history is another common theme cultural groups draw upon while calling for these bans – as in the case of the trouble faced by the films Bajirao Mastani and Padmavati, both of which depicted Hindu-Muslim inter-religious romances in the lives of historical rulers or leaders.
In each of the above cases, specific criticism has been levied against the ban, but collectively they allude towards a dangerous trend where existing taboos are solidified and a certain narrative of history alone is tolerated. Sexuality in some forms is accepted – typically when it adheres to the male gaze, fictional license is allowed for historical movies that merely attempt to create a larger than life narrative, which does not discomfit existing understandings of power and villainy.
Prominent directors and actors, both new and veteran, have spoken out against this trend both on mainstream media and social media, but the enemy they wish to take down is not singular. While much of the anger may be directed against the CBFC, and rightfully so, the source of the CBFC’s mandate comes from the public. For as long as public sentiments continue to be inflammable in the face of art, and fragile narratives of masculinity, social order and historical narrative are threatened, the lurking demon of censorship cannot be defeated.