Suman Ghosh, the maker of a documentary on Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen may need to thank Pahlaj Nihalani, chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), for making his work known to a world-wide audience by ordering that six words be beeped out from it. Without it, the documentary, the Argumentative Indian, might not have travelled very far from ‘liberal’ and intellectual audiences.
The documentary is based primarily on a dialogue between Sen, recipient of the Bharat Ratna award, and another eminent economist, Kaushik Basu. Words like ‘Gujarat’, ‘Cow’, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hindutva view of India’, uttered by the Nobel Laureate, and were considered objectionable by the CBFC. They supposedly show contempt for ‘Indian culture’ and ‘democracy’. They have been found to be insulting to both politicians and religious sentiments. In addition, they also have the potential to disturb communal peace and social harmony, it has been said. Gujarat, of course, is God’s Own Country.
The charge sheet against the documentary film is long but some questions arise straightaway. By suppressing freedom of expression, who, Sen or the CBFC, is endangering ‘democracy’? Nihalani’s appointment as the ‘censor board’ (the name by which CBFC is commonly known) a year ago was seen as a reward for his loyalty to prime minister, Narendra Modi. Nihalani had no hesitation in admitting that he was a big admirer of Modi and his beliefs when perhaps he should have been talking about respecting things like artistic freedom and expression.
The ruling party and its ‘Parivar’ have been contemptuous of Sen, though deviously calling him a Congress supporter when he had not minced words in criticism of the previous Congress-led regime.
Sen has allegedly insulted Gujarat and politicians in general by talking of ‘criminality’ witnessed in Gujarat, obviously during the 2002 pogrom. By what yardstick does Nihalani think that the Gujarat events of 2002, when Modi was the chief minister of the state, were different from ‘criminality’?
‘Hindu India’ is an expression that the ruling party and its supporters are not shy of using. In fact, they make no secret of the fact that they want India to be a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The concept of ‘Hindutva’ seeks to spread this message, often with force and violence. It is the ‘Hindutva’ policies of the ruling party that have dealt a severe blow to peace and social harmony in the country, not the views of Amartya Sen.
Critics of Nihalani have demanded his removal. He has a penchant for inviting attention for all the wrong reasons. Soon after assuming office he had issued a list of 28 or so ‘cuss’ words that cannot be used in films. He said the words were already listed in the ‘banned’ category. That may be so but if the ban on certain words was to stop exhibition of ‘vulgarity’ in films than Nihalani has much to explain.
Media reports have said that certain films with ‘vulgar’ words and ‘daring’ sex scenes have been cleared by the CBFC after Nihalani took over. Was it because they were politically ‘harmless’? It is also said that when he was a film maker, Nihalani had made films with ‘vulgar’ scenes and risqué dialogues with double-meaning.
If these allegations are true, then Nihalani’s ‘sanskari’ proclivity can be questioned. After all, his objections to certain views of Sen are about the perceived ‘insult’ to ‘Indian culture’. It may be Nihalani’s case that standards were more lax when he was making films because the country was yet to be ruled by the upholder of nation’s morality –‘god’s own gift to the nation’.
But a realistic Nihalani would know that a lot of people do not see things the way he or the party he supports does. Social taboos are being broken fast. The internet and the near universal use of mobile phones have made the people, including the very young ones, quite aware of what is happening around them. The children get to learn about the birds and the bees at a much younger age than their parents or grandparents. Nihalani cannot dub all of them as lesser citizens devoid of all ‘sanskars’.
A few days before he brought out his sledge hammer against certain words in the Argumentative Indian, Nihalani had courted controversy by objecting to the word ‘intercourse’ in a film. He remained unfazed by the torrent of criticism.
Many people in the film world have said that the CBFC should be scrapped. They have pointed out that though the remit of the CBFC is to issue specific certification after evaluating the merit of the films, in reality it works like a ‘censor’ board—ordering cuts and threatening withholding of certification.
There is little or no chance of the CBFC being scrapped. The ruling party of the day has shown a great fascination for regulating all kinds of activities of human life, be it the eating habit or the way we dress. The ruling party has taken firm control of the larger and more influential sections of the mass media.
The government-controlled All India Radio and Doordarshan were never so decisively converted into government propaganda machine as they are today. The news bulletins almost invariably begin with what the Prime Minister has said or is doing, unless it opens with ‘deep’ fissures or troubles in the Opposition.
In such an atmosphere it is foolish to expect that the government will allow the film regulatory authority to have freedom or autonomy. The government’s task becomes easier, however, when so many of the famous film stars have declared their admiration for the prime minister and his policies. Some of these film stars or people associated with the film industry have been ‘rewarded’ suitably. Nihalani is one example.