Before making their way from a production studio into the hearts and minds of a billion movie-goers, films in India must first take a detour and stop at an office tower in Mumbai. This large, sickly-pale building, covered on the sides in strips of blue glass windows, is the home of Central Board of Film Certification, otherwise known as the Censor Board.
Most countries have some sort of a film-certification authority, set up to categorize films by age bracket so that children aren’t exposed to adult material. But most of these institutions have moved on from the days of cutting offending material from movies, and now trust that audiences of consenting adults might be able to decide for themselves what to watch.
Not in India. In India a cabal of government-friendly industry types have the final say – not just on a film’s classification, but also the content of all films released in India.
The senior-most figure at the board is its chair, who, like the board’s other members, is appointed by the government. The two chairmen installed since Narendra Modi’s election in 2014 are united by their unabashed sycophancy. The first, Pahlaj Nihalani, was a film producer who is a hard-core supporter of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and fawned over the prime minister, whom he called his “action hero.” The second, Prasoon Joshi, declared that “hardly anyone” could deny that Modi “thinks for the country. He does not think for himself.”
Stuffing the board with government cronies did not begin with Modi; the board has long been a political tool, malleable and staffed by people close to the ruling party of the day. The board’s members, regional officers, and members of its advisory panel – in short, everyone charged with classifying films and recommending cuts – are all appointed by the government, making it an institution singularly well-suited to the wielding of state authority. In India, where cinema forms the lifeblood of popular culture, this makes the board an entity of enormous power, handing to the government the ability to decide what Indians of all ages are permitted to see.
But that power is not enough, it seems, for the Modi government, which this year introduced a draft bill to expand its control over the board. The proposed law would allow the government to direct the board to reconsider a certificate it has already issued. It would, in essence, let the government reverse the board’s decisions. The proposal comes in the wake of the government’s decision in April to abolish the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, previously the final course of appeal for filmmakers unhappy with the board’s decisions.
More than 3,000 film-industry figures, including some of India’s top directors, have written to the minister of information and broadcasting, saying that the bill would “endanger freedom of expression and democratic dissent” and calling it “another blow to the film fraternity.” Under a government that loathes and fears all expressions of discontent, the law promises further repression at a time when Indian life is already less free than at any time in the last several decades.
To understand why this is a problem, it is important to examine what the board itself stands for. This venerable institution, established in 1951, exemplifies the worst of the Indian governing class’ regressive, hypocritical tendencies. Its cuts are driven mainly by two considerations.
The first is to nurture the rampant moral hysteria that pervades the country it serves. Some of its decisions would not sound out of place in a Victorian pamphlet. A film about drag queens was considered too subversive for release in India; as chairman, Nihalani, whose own films sometimes border on the pornographic, ordered that the word “intercourse” in a movie be replaced by “physical interaction.”
The second is even more alarming: an unashamed desire to please its political bosses. The board tried to make a range of cuts to the 2016 film “Udta Punjab,” which depicts rampant drug use in the state of Punjab, including demanding that the filmmakers remove a shot showing a sign with the state’s name on it and cut mentions of words including “election” and “MP [member of parliament]” because, it said, such questionable content could affect the sovereignty of the country.
Although these clownish commands were later overturned in court, the fact that putative luminaries of the film industry truly believed – or, at least, claimed to believe – that a work of fiction could truly undermine the sovereignty of the Indian republic is a tragic indication of the mindset of the government and its censors: a state of perpetual victimhood, an tragic obsession with absolute control, an outlook so devoid of humor or a sense of irony as to evoke pity rather than anger or disdain.
And it is pity that I feel for India’s chief censors, and the chronic compulsion they feel to perpetuate, for eternity, the basest aspects of a social conservatism whose erosion would doubtless be hastened by a freer artistic landscape. An approach that would treat Indians like grown-ups, bestow upon them some semblance of respect and agency, is anathema to the board and the state. Changing that would make the country freer: People would be able to make their personal choices on their own; marginalized filmmakers could make artistic choices and depict life as they see it without interference from those who shut their eyes to the world.
That should be the goal that every government aspires to achieve. In India, the opposite is true and with this draft law, we are pitching ever further toward a dismal future. Our movies, the artistic escape of a billion people, are controlled by government cheerleaders, dour moralists, the sort of people who demand shorter kissing scenes in a James Bond film – without watching it. We are all the worse for it.