What Karan Johar said at the Jaipur Literary Festival recently was not shocking, when in an unusual outburst, the 39- year old popular film maker, producer,director asserted,“The talk about freedom of expression is the biggest joke I believe, in the world. Democracy is the second biggest joke I think.”
“I really wonder how are we really democratic? How is there freedom of expression? As a filmmaker, I feel bound at every level be it what I put out on celluloid or what I say in print,” he said.
What is surprising is that such a statement comes from a man who has only produced love stories. Some of his films don’t even have a villain.If such a feel threatened society, one has to sit up and take notice of it.
Barely a day before him, a tough talking Prakash Jha,whose upcoming film “Jai Gangaajal” is stuck at the Censor Board had stated that India did not need censorship.
“The Censor Board has been imposed upon us. It was never needed. We can do censorship on our own. We don’t need anyone to tell us what to do and what not,” says Jha whose earlier films like Gangajal, Apharan and Rajneeti are chilling documents about the criminal police-nexus in the country.
Coming hard at Pahlaj Nihalani, the controversial head of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) Jha asserted that Nihalani had “his own agenda,” adding,“There is a certain language,texture in the film which he doesn’t understand.”
Incidentally, director and film-maker Shyam Benegal, newly appointed head of a panel to revamp and advise the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) also made a similar statement of intent after his appointment when he said that “half a dozen people cannot decide what is right for society”.
Benegal is a respected name and has a rich repertory of work to back the stature that he enjoys in the industry. A lot of industry big wigs have expressed their optimism that he and his panel would be able to find the way out if the muddle.
But will he able to get his way in the current scenario when more than a dozen organisations have sprung up in the country in the last few months that decide whether Ghulam Ali will perform in a city, whether a film deserves to be screened if it has a Khan starring in it.Even if the Board clears the film, organised crowds descend at theatre halls to block it making the Censor Board irrelevant.
Unfortunately this has also become a way of life even in the US where “attempts at censorship come not from governmental entities but from interest groups that use the threat of boycotts and protests to put pressure on Hollywood to change objectionable content” says a cinema expert.
And to expect Pahlaj Nihalani, who had openly professed his loyalty to the Bharatiya Janata Party after his appointment last year to take an independent stand would be a joke.
For those who could not read his interviews he produced that bizarre video ‘Har Har Modi’ which was forced on fans of Salman Khan when they went to see his film ‘Prem Ratan Dhgan Payo’.
Nihalani’s one year tenure beginning last January has been marked by almost a controversy a month, the most absurd of which being the trimming down of kissing scenes from the James Bond franchise film ‘Spectre’ on the ground that only a limited number of kisses would be allowed for Indian audiences,giving an international flavor to the controversy.
Nihalani ‘s tenure also saw the release of a list of cuss words that he ruled would not be allowed in films.No one knows whether this was official but it did cause enough embarrassment for a country that swears by right to free speech.
The latest controversy that hit him were the online trailers of ‘Kya cool hain hum’ and ‘Mastizade’ which are considered too obscene by people.
Nihalani reacted his helplessness when he stated, “We are in a catch-22 situation. Karo toh gaali, na karo toh gaali. When we were strict with the vulgarity quotient, we were called prudes. Sanskaari became a gaali. And to endorse obscenity was seen worthy of taali.”
Come to think of it,the Censor Board has always been hit by controversies whichever the government in power. It actually helped films like ‘Water’ and ‘Fire’ get some curious viewers to the theatre during the controversy but when it was released normally the theaters were totally empty.
Which again brings us back to the original question ‘Does India need a censor board?”
The question is relevant because India with 1288 films per year ranks at the top of the film producing countries in the world, followed by US (677), China (456), Japan (448), France (230), Spain (186), Germany (150), South Korea (139), Italy (131) and UK (126) according to the latest statistics.
If Hollywood, the oldest and most organised and prestigious name in cinema can do without a Censor Board why can’t we? It follows a process of self-censorship, first through the Hayes code in the earlier 20 th century and since then through the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) rating system.
Hollywood appears more concerned about religious controversies rather than issues of morality or obscenity because the Americans seem to have realized that it would be fool-hardy to impose censorship in an age of Internet accessibility.
According to experts on Hollywood,they are more into heated debates on the content of public libraries and of school curricula than about cinema.
U.K. which happens to be the role model for most of our democratic system and ranks as number 10 producer of films in the world, seems more deeply involved into this exercise.But its concern seems to be to protect its children not only from harmful cinematic content but also from videos which are officially permitted and certified.
The BBFC has introduced a system of ratings that categorize films into seven categories U (Universal), PG(parental guidance),12 A(cinema release for 12 years and over),12(video release suitable for 12 years and above), 15(film release for 15 years and above), 18 (suitable for 18 years and above), R 18 (adult works for licensed premises only).
“The major critical issues for them are discrimination, drugs, horror, imitable behavior, language, nudity, sex, sexual violence, theme and violence when making decisions.They also consider the context, the tone and impact of a work (eg how it makes the audience feel) and even the release format (for example, as DVDs are watched in the home, there is a higher risk of underage viewing)” says a report.
All classification decisions are based on the BBFC’s published and regularly updated Guidelines.The Guidelines are the product of extensive public consultation, research and the accumulated experience of the BBFC over the years.They reflect the current views on film, DVD and video game regulation.
Does this have lessons for India which ranks as the top most producer of films in the world although it is unable to generate a matching revenue because of the comparatively cheaper tickets.
The panel headed by Shyam Benegal is believed to have come out with some suggestions that seem to suggest they are likely to follow in the lines of the American grading system.
The members of the revising committee are unanimous in their opinion of no-cuts,suggest selective leaks,because confusion in the decision making by CBFC have led to a no-show of powerful cinema like ‘Fifty shades of Grey” in this country.
Yet another suggestion that has been leaked out is that adult films will be shown in separate slots in theatres because they cannot be shown in separate theaters that should have been the ideal situation.
Some times over- smart moves lead to disastrous results.When late HKL Bhagat was Minister for Information and Broadcasting, he had started showing adult films on Doordarshan in the 11 pm slot in the night to keep children away.
The result was that children used to wait for their tired parents to go off to sleep so that they could have unhindered access to unadulterated adult stuff right in their homes!
The panel has two more months to make its suggestions public but it seems a tough task for Shyam Benegal and his panel. Controversies have dogged the tenures of the heart- throbs of millions like Asha Parekh and Sharmila Tagore who could not remain outside the purview of controversy that consumed them.
It will be a difficult task to get out of the mess unless the government gives up the mentality of taking the masses as a bunch of sheep to be guided and herded to a particular point of view instead of using their discretion.
As Hamlet would have said, “There is something rotten in the State of Denmark.”
By Amitabh Srivastava