Cen­sor and No Sen­si­bil­ity

Change in the CBFC marks the end of an anachro­nis­tic tool in the hands of an un­cul­tured brigade

The Economic Times - - Breaking Ideas - In­dra­jit Hazra

Things have thank­fully changed quite a lot since Cul­ture, with a cap­i­tal C, was the mo­nop­oly of a par­tic­u­lar kind of aes­thet­ics and its cus­to­di­ans. It was elit­ist, pa­tro­n­is­ing, turn­ing its nose up to pop­u­lar cul­ture, and came wrapped in ex­pen­sive hand­looms and was reg­u­larly seen — and see­ing it­self be­ing seen — in the in­ter­na­tional film and cul­tural fes­ti­val cir­cuit. To­day, that brand of Cul­ture has a name that sticks: Lu­tyens’ Cul­ture — in hind­sight, a cu­ri­ous divi­sion of the high arts and the low arts, its height be­ing de­ter­mined by the na­ture and class of its con­sumers and pa­trons.

Like the re­venge of the nerds, how­ever, when this so­cial, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal class started to re­cede into the back­ground — rather, it stood still while the rest of the world moved into the fore­ground — the new lot of cul­ture-keep­ers who took over started hav­ing their own no­tions of Cul­ture poured into the old si­los built by the an­cien, now un-em­pow­dered régime.

While ear­lier, un­der Nehru-Gandhi rule and taste, cul­tural re­quire­ments for the masses were seen pure- ly from the point of view of re­quired en­ter­tain­ment, like glad­i­a­tor fights dur­ing the Ro­man Em­pire to keep hoi pol­loi happy — and not bored enough to think up of dan­ger­ous stuff like in­sur­rec­tion. This was dis­tinct from the finer stuff that the Cul­ture­wal­lahs saw them­selves (and were seen) hard­wired to ap­pre­ci­ate.

So, Peter Brooks’ theatre pro­duc­tionof Ma­hab­haratawasthetalkof the town,whileRa­manandSa­gar’sgaudy pre-Ekta Kapoor TV se­rial Ra­mayan was the fod­der of the na­tion. The ban on the im­port of Sal­man Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in1988 dur­ing the Rajiv Gandhi gov­ern­ment (the pos­ses­sion of the book it­self was not banned by a ‘lib­eral, lit­er­ate’ gov­ern­ment, of course) af­ter a bunch of Mus­lim cler­ics went loco, was ap­pease­ment as much of the ‘Mus­lim elec­torate’, as of un­so­phis­ti­cated red­necks.

The Pahlaj Ni­hilism

But in all this grand sep­a­ra­tion of In­dian Cul­ture was the ner­vous­ness of the cul­turati about the un­washed masses, slowly wak­ing up to the virtues of branded soaps and de­odor­ants, storm­ing Lu­tyens’ Bastille via some cul­tural slight, some aes­thetic trans­gres­sion. Thus, the hon­ing of that colo­nial de­vice that ear­lier kept a colonised class in check, now be­ing used to osten­si­bly keep the peace of the land, the pas­sions of a poly­phonic (read: ca­co­phonic) na­tion in check: the cen­sor board.

Well, of course, post-In­de­pen­dence, the in­sti­tu­tion of the cen­sor board would be called some­thing suitab- ly post-colonis­ing: Cen­tral Board of Film Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion (CBFC). This was as benign-sound­ing as the min­istry of in­for­ma­tion and broad­cast­ing. And yet, its func­tion, over the years, has been crys­tal clear: to con­trol pas­sions from spilling over.

With film be­ing the most di­rectly im­pres­sion­able of cul­tural tools avail­able to lit­er­ate, lit­er­ary or il­lit­er­ate man, it was con­trol­ling the knobs and but­tons of the CBFC that has come to be­come the dom­i­nant agency by which to keep the na­tion safe from ma­raud­ing mobs and vil­lagers with pitch­forks eas­ily sus­cep­ti­ble to get­ting their sen­ti­ments hurt.

Which is when the change in the kind of peo­ple in power mir­rored a change in the na­ture of con­trol and cen­sor­ship. If ear­lier, the au­thor­i­ties caved in to de­mands of ran­sack­ing goons who saw an M F Hu­sain paint­ing only in porno­graphic terms — if only to ‘keep the na­tion safe’ — it had, of late, be­come an ex­er­cise in the na­tion’s taste-build­ing. And no one per­son­i­fied this more proac­tively than CBFC chief Pahlaj Ni­ha­lani.

The litany of don’ts in movies be- came so long and weary that it re­ally doesn’t bear rep­e­ti­tion. But one of the last calls the CBFC made dur­ing his ten­ure that ended on Fri­day, was the CBFC’s ob­jec­tions to the words ‘cow’, ‘Gu­jarat’, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hin­dutva’ in a doc­u­men­tary on the No­bel Prize-win­ning econ­o­mist Amartya Sen, ‘The Ar­gu­men­ta­tive In­dian’ that was sched­uled for re­lease last month. That Ni­ha­lani and his cul­tural marms were over­reach­ing their brief even by usual In­dian stan­dards of over­reach be­came clear when such a film — not ex­actly a cin­e­mafiller — was tar­geted as if the CBFC’s whole point was to search and snip, search and snip, even the most ir­rel­e­vant con­tent.

New Fri­day Re­lease

For a coun­try that has in­ter­net ac­cess on their phones grow­ing ev­ery day, that has the old di­vide be­tween ‘ver­nac­u­lar-speak­ers’ and ‘English­s­peak­ers’ shrink faster than shrinkwrap, for a prime gov­ern­men­tal body to not just play ‘kabab mein haddi’ to young In­dian men and women, but also ac­tu­ally outdo pre­vi­ous regimes by en­gag­ing in ‘pre-emp­tive ap­pease­ment’ came across as down­right boor­ish and un­cul­tured.

The ap­point­ment of Pra­soon Joshi, ad­mired as a scriptwriter and lyri­cist, could have been the only an­ti­dote to his pre­de­ces­sor’s un­cul­tured goon­ery. Joshi is the right per­son to also un­der­line the fact that the divi­sion of high and low cul­ture has be­come a false one. Per­haps, un­der his stew­ard­ship, the cen­sor board will do what any mod­ern, grown-up na­tion does with its film cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tion: de­cide what films are un­suit­able for kids to watch and cer­tify them as ‘adult’. And that’s it.

Oh, honey! Let’s cel­e­brate: De­vika Rani & Hi­man­shu Rai in the1933 film, Karma

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