If news reports are to be believed, censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani has conjured up another way to flex his “moral muscles”. This is by planning to ban smoking and drinking in films, as these go against India’s “social ethos”. He wants film stars to behave like paragons of virtue and set an example by not shooting scenes where their characters are seen drinking or smoking. He is no longer satisfied with the statutory warning at one corner of the screen that “smoking is injurious to health”, but wants such scenes either expunged or the films marked “Adult” for them to be allowed to get released. This is ludicrous, to say the least. It is not known if Pahlaj Nihalani’s brief includes acting as the moral health-keeper of the nation; or if he has, on his own, decided to be the arbiter of Indian culture to the cinema-going masses. Whichever be the case, the bottom line is that it is the government at the Centre that is receiving the flak for the censor board chief’s excesses. It is true that censor board chiefs in earlier dispensations too made several unaesthetic interventions in films on the recommendations of different lobbies and political masters. But that does not excuse the current chief’s despotic behaviour, where he is wreaking havoc in an arena of creativity that needs to be handled with immense sensitivity. It is time the government realised that Nihalani is just helping reaffirm the perception that opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi propagate at home and abroad—that this is a totalitarian government, which does not believe in freedom of expression, and is intent on policing social mores.
In spite of all the complaints and protests against Nihalani, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is still allowing this not-so-illustrious filmmaker to helm the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Surely the ministry, like its counterparts in previous governments, does not want to give the impression that Nihalani has too powerful a backing to be removed. The government will not be seen to be succumbing to its opponents if a more suitable replacement is found. It will be seen to be doing a much-required course correction.
In fact, seeing the way CBFC chiefs past and present have held filmmakers and films hostage to their mercy, this newspaper recommends a complete overhaul of the policy of censoring films. In the 21st century, censors do not have a place. Only regimes like Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China believe that information and entertainment should be invariably censored. This is impermissible in a democracy, especially in an age when the influence of the internet is all encompassing. The uncut versions of the Hollywood films censored by CBFC are freely available over the internet; all that viewers need is a decent internet connection to access them. The CBFC need not save minds from being “polluted”. Moral policing is not its job. The 65-year-old Cinematograph Act, 1952 is an anachronism that must be discarded. The CBFC’s mandate should not go beyond rating films as “Adult” “Universal” and the like, the way it is done in mature democracies. Similar recommendations have been made by a committee headed by Shyam Benegal. These need to be implemented expeditiously. Cinema is a form of art. Let it not be mangled beyond recognition because some people believe that they have the right to take the Indian audience’s intelligence as needing state supervision.