In its wisdom or absence of it, the Government of India has appointed Pahlaj Nihalani as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Judging by his utterances since assuming an office which itself belongs in the dustbin of a democracy, this authority on film certification apparently draws inspiration from the Muttawa, the moral police of Saudi Arabia, that exemplar of 21st century values. This columnist is among those who still refer to Mumbai as Bombay. Apparently, this is because he has been seeing too many films in which “Bombay” is used rather than “Mumbai”. The CBFC is readying to ban future “errors” of this kind, together with a host of other changes designed to please Nihalani’s grandmother, who would have wanted swear words of even a mild variety to be excluded from human discourse. Not knowing the new CBFC boss, it is not clear whether he himself speaks only in the sanitised manner he insists on enforcing within the film industry. Those who have watched some of the films produced by the CBFC chairperson say that practically every other sentence spoken by his characters contains phrases which his grandmother would react to in disgust. Or perhaps Mr Nihalani is wise enough not to watch his own films. Or perhaps he would like to repent such a past (and it must be said that admiring stories about him teem in their effervescence in the Bombay film world), and what better way than to enforce a level of censorship on the film industry as would make the products of Bollywood akin to the films churned out in such havens of free expression as Tehran or Pyongyang?
Since the 1980s, successive governments in India have worked hard to destroy domestic competition to major international brands, in the process reducing this country to a trading pygmy. The exceptions were industries such as information technology, and this because they were ignored by the government. However, once Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee appointed an IT Minister, problems began for the industry, with the result that for the past two decades, there has not been another Wipro or Infosys springing up. Instead, almost all social media and internet platforms and most of telecom is controlled by foreign companies, in contrast to China, where producers such as ZTE and Huawei have reached international size, and which has its own versions of Facebook, Twitter. This country expects Prime Minister Narendra Modi to respect the wishes of Babasaheb Ambedkar by retrieving the freedom of speech guaranteed to citizens in the Constitution from the numerous exceptions that have been made by successive governments. Including, it must be said, by that current champion of free speech, Kapil Sibal. Had the dead hand of bureaucracy not rested so heavily on the knowledge industry in India, by now there would have been an Indian competitor to Yahoo! or Google, rather than a situation where these entities dominate the Indian market. Apart from the IT industry, and now that the telecom industry has been sent to the ICU courtesy Manmohan Singh, a bright spot which remains, is the film industry, notably Bollywood. However, the launching of persecutions — sorry, prosecutions — against an event company for simply holding a comedy show in Bombay indicates that the freedom of expression essential for the health of a creative industry seems to have almost completely disappeared in Bombay. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was chosen for his youth. It is therefore inexplicable that in the AIB case, in the Shireen Dalvi episode and in other ways, his government is reacting in a manner more suited to the 18th century than even 20th. Unless Fadnavis can defend the freedoms created by Ambedkar, he will witness the demise of the film industry in his capital city. Creative expression cannot survive a CBFC presided over by an individual of views immured in a culture of control, nor can it take blows such as FIRs against AIB and some actors or the fact that Shireen Dalvi is on the run rather than allowed to lead a life of dignity.
Interestingly, a glimmer of hope has emerged from Aaditya Thackeray, the son of Uddhav Thackeray. Understanding that a world class city operates 24 hours, the young Thackeray is seeking to prod Fadnavis into abandoning the Muttawa-style approach favoured by the late R.R. Patil, who was one with Kiran Bedi in her avatar as police chief in Chandigarh, that night life should be shut down rather than protected. As Aaditya Thackeray correctly warns us, this country has far too many “Stone Age” laws. Rather than add to that dismal list, those claiming to fulfil the promise of PM Modi to bring India to the 21st century need to know that freedom of expression is core to the process of bringing the country into such a dawn. Seeking to follow Saudi Arabia in using the bludgeon of law to curb and constrain behaviour that does not harm anyone else, government in India is going against the promise of the 21st century establishment which won for the BJP its majority in the Lok Sabha. It is not North Korea, but to an extent South Korea (with its vibrant cultural offerings) that ought to be the model. By its choice of the Nihalanis who look to the Victorians for inspiration, such a modern mindset seems far away from actualisation. Hopefully, PM Modi will place the need for this on his priority list.