Controversy

Saffronised censor

Print edition : February 20, 2015

Pahlaj Nihalani, the new Chairman of the Censor Board. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Leela Samson. She resigned as chairperson of teh censor board over the release of "MSG: The Messenger of God". Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

Members of the Sikh community protesting against the release of the film, in New Delhi on January 16. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

The Modi government fills the vacancies in the film censor board with persons “proud” of their association with the BJP, after the resignation of Leela Samson and other panel members.

“I AM proud to be a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] man, and Narendra Modi is my action hero,” said Pahlaj Nihalani, Hindi film producer. For his unstinting loyalty to the party and the Prime Minister, Nihalani has been rewarded amply: he has been made the Chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), or censor board.

In fact, along with him, a band of BJP supporters have secured coveted positions on the board. This action is vintage BJP. In its previous tenure at the head of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, the party had packed several quasi-government bodies with its own people in what was seen as an effort to further the Sangh Parivar’s saffron agenda.

Essentially, the mass media, especially films and television, are largely secular platforms, and technically should function without any government interference. Positioning profiles such as Nihalani in key posts is causing concern within the film industry and among the liberal-minded. The BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations have never been apologetic about their views on certain issues relating to religion, women and social norms. Their handling of these topics has been narrow-minded, even bordering on the absurd.

Some members of the film fraternity fear that with Nihalani at the helm, scripts that do not fall in line with the saffron ideology may not get the censor’s nod or an appropriate rating. This would prove detrimental not only to the industry but to the larger issue of freedom of speech and expression, which should have no shackles in a large democracy like India.

“This is the first time since the board was constituted that every single person on it is from the BJP or is linked to it in some manner. There is no semblance of balance on this board,” says the film-maker Rakesh Sharma. “Unfortunately, it always comes down to political patronage or largesse shown by party leaders.”

Nihalani assumed charge on January 19, after the board chaired by Leela Samson resigned en masse ostensibly over the controversy surrounding film certification for MSG: The Messenger of God made by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the self-styled spiritual leader who heads the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS), a Haryana-based spiritual organisation. The entire board had been formed during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime.

In early January, the situation at the CBFC got complicated when the board refused screening permission for The Messenger of God, which was slated for release on January 16. Several Sikh organisations, including the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of the religion, protested against the release of the film saying it was blasphemous. Some groups organised demonstrations to prevent cinemas from screening the film. While none of the CBFC’s former members is willing to comment on the content of Messenger, the film is said to be a feature-length advertisement on the DSS.

According to an official release from the DSS, the film which stars Ram Rahim in the lead playing himself, is about tackling issues such as drug addiction, alcoholism and gender-related problems that plague today’s youth. Photographs released on the DSS’ website show Ram Rahim in rock-star attire surrounded by assistants dressed in “Men-in-Black” outfits. Industry sources said Ram Rahim made 100 outfits for the film and did many of the stunts himself. Close to 3.5 lakh people were reportedly captured on camera during one of his “shows”.

When the board denied certification for the film, the makers of the film, including Jeetu Arora, who is known for making popular Hindi television serials such as Kyunki Saas be Kabhi Bahu thi, approached the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT); it quickly and strangely cleared the film for release. Informed sources maintain that the government may have acceded to the DSS’ demand as it had helped the BJP win the elections in Haryana by openly expressing support to the saffron party.

Leela Samson resigned on the grounds of “interference, coercion and corruption”. She said this was not the first time she faced pressure from the Modi government. There were demands to cut scenes from the film PK, which dealt with organised religion and self-styled gurus. But the board held out.

It was only a matter of time before Leela Samson stepped down. She was serving an extended term until the new government found a replacement. Film observers said she did not fit in with the Modi government’s ideology. Leela Samson had a fairly controversial tenure. There were allegations of corruption, illegal appointments and financial irregularities. Although it is said that she was not directly involved in them, she allegedly did nothing to stop them.

Other BJP supporters who have secured positions on the board are the actor Vani Tripathi Tikoo, the film-maker Ashoke Pandit, and the actor-director Chandra Prakash Dwivedi. Among the nine board members are the film writer Mihir Bhuta; Prof. Syed Abdul Bari, Vice-Chancellor of the Central University of Gujarat; Ramesh Patange, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s Samajik Samrasta Manch; the actor George Baker; the actor-film-maker Jeevitha; and the actor-playwright S. Ve. Shekhar.

How did Nihalani suddenly emerge on the scene? A relatively unknown producer with films that failed at the box office, Nihalani is better known as the younger brother of the film-maker Govind Nihalani, who directed the powerful and award-winning Ardh Satya (1983) and Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998). In the 1980s, Pahlaj Nihalani made Shola Aur Shabnam and Andaz and a slew of forgettable films starring Shatrughan Sinha and other yesteryear actors. Shatrughan Sinha, a BJP Member of Parliament, is said to be close to the party high command, and Nihalani, who had served as president of the Association of Motion Picture and Television Programme Producers, has worked with BJP leaders in their public relations and media campaigns.

During the 2014 parliamentary elections, Nihalani was in the limelight when he made a six-minute campaign film titled Har Har Modi Ghar Ghar Modi. Nihalani adapted a traditional Hindu greeting, Har Har Mahadev, to capture audiences across the northern belt of India.

The CBFC is a statutory body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It regulates the public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, and so plays a critical role in the film industry. Basically, it decides what can be viewed and what cannot. The board also rates a film (U, PG or A) according to certain criteria such as depiction of violence, obscenity, and explicit material. The CBFC’s nine regional offices issue certification for films in regional languages.

Rakesh Sharma said a powerful body such as the censor board should have a balanced panel representing a cross section of society that was qualified to take an informed decision. Unless a film gets a certification from the board, it cannot be viewed, distributed or sold.

Sharma, whose film Final Solution, which documented the 2002 Gujarat riots, was not given clearance for screening, said the debate on censorship was ongoing and that the ideal situation would be to make the CBFC a ratings agency to decide which category a film should fall into. If there is an issue with a film, then a second-tier body, on the lines of the Press Council of India, should be tasked to handle it. Members of the panel of such a body should comprise social scientists, jurists and those who understand the creative mind, he suggested.

For instance, if a film like PK was cleared, then why not The Messenger of God? Sharma said in the absence of non-partisanship, “we can say goodbye to watching films such as PK and Haider”.

Nihalani has promised to repair the “battered” image of the censor board. He also made references to snipping issues such as nudity and vulgarity, indicating that the board is already showing signs of moral policing, which Parivar affiliates are notorious for.

Films have faced bans or scene cuts before depending on how they affected the party in power. In 2014, the Congress-led UPA government did not allow certification for Kaum De Heere, a film on the assassins of Indira Gandhi. Other films that did not get certifications are The Pink Mirror (2004), for its homosexual content; Black Friday (2005), for depiction of the Mumbai serial blasts; and Amu (2005), on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. A bunch of films had to make cuts before obtaining certification.

Films made in India are clearly a crucial part of the country’s social and creative fabric. They capture the attention of millions and are influential in transmitting information and messages. It is, therefore, important for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar organisations to capture this section of mass media. “They want to impart their values and nationalistic agenda. They will have to entrench themselves in the industry to do this,” an industry observer said.

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