This is not in defence of Pahlaj Nihalani because his moral codes are, according to his own admission, in keeping with the “Modi” resolutions as understood and interpreted by Nihalani which means, he does not use his individual and official freedom to decide on which scene to permit or not permit or whether to allow or disallow the word Punjab in the film’s title. It is more to point out that Nihalani is not the first chief to behave in the manner he does and is certainly not the last.

Film censorship in India is statutory. The Cinematograph Act, 1952 is primarily based on provisions, which form a part of the Indian Constitution. Article 19 refers to the Right to Freedom, a fundamental right.

Article 19 (1) (a) gives the right to freedom of speech and expression to all citizens subject to ‘reasonable restrictions.’ The broad scope of such ‘reasonable restrictions’ given in Article 19(2) are: “sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relations to contempt of court, defamation or indictment to an offence.” These restrictions form the legal basis of censorship of films in our country.

Censorship in Indian cinema

The history of censorship of cinema in India will reveal that every other day, new controversy raises its head, arising in terms of what should or should not be shown, what should or should not be cut out from this or that film.

Shyam Benegal’s Bhoomika (1977) was given an “A” because the main protagonist was a strong woman who fought back. Benegal recalls that in 1975, Nishant (1975) had caused a censorial flutter because it was seen to be a ‘subversive’ film! Oft-quoted examples of films with political themes having crossed swords with the CBFC are Garm Hawa (1972), Kissa Kursi Ka (1975), Aandhi (1975), Meri Awaz Suno (1981), Tamas (1988), and Bombay (1995).

The Khosla Committee in its 1981 Report, ruled equivocally that, “Censorship can be deemed to be a reasonable restriction on the right of freedom of expression,” provided that the “nature and extent of this control or restriction is related to the matters mentioned in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. If the restriction is of a kind that would not be declared reasonable by a court of law, the restriction will not be justified…”

The Central Board of Film Certification’s (CBFC) guidelines amended up to May 1983, clearly laid down its three-fold objectives of censorship:

(a) the medium of cinema remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society,

(b) artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed, and

(c) censorship is responsive to social change.

These objectives are in exercise of powers conferred by sub-section (2) of Section 5B of the Cinematograph Act 1952, (37 of 1952) and directions given by the Central Government for sanctioning films for public exhibition.

Sometimes, even censored films face the axe post-release. Mrinal Sen’s Baishey Shravan (1960) was invited to be screened at the London Film Festival. The film was partly based on the Bengal famine of 1943.

Says Mrinal Sen, “In October 1960, I received a note marked ‘Immediate’ from I & B Ministry. The ministry thought that all scenes showing the protagonist, an incorrigible villager, using his fingers while eating should be deleted because this would nauseate the sophisticated audience abroad. When I refused, the ministry stopped negotiating with me. I sent the print directly to the festival. I later informed the ministry that nobody felt sick during the screening. There was no nausea,” he laughs.

Sometimes, the CBFC is reduced to a joke by powers-that-be in Delhi who often over-rule a refusal or an “A” certificate through a simple telephone call.

N.S. Thapa, one of the best CEOs of Films Division (FD) was Regional Officer at the CBFC’s Mumbai office between 1972 and 1976. The examining committee found Sholay (1975) too violent and decided to grant it an “A” certificate with cuts. “Even before I reached the office, G.P. Sippy’s man was there asking for a withdrawal of the application,” recalls Thapa. “Next day, a top politician called to tell us to pass the film without referring it to the revising committee. We did not fight back because Virendra Vyas, who was then-Chairman of the CBFC, was a heart patient. I was shocked by the political interference and returned to my original post at FD,” he sums up.

How ‘expert’ are the members of the CBFC?

Are they qualified enough to pass judgement – positive or negative, on the impact of a film on the society at large? Are they completely free of vested interests for or against the passing of a film? Are they dedicated to their work as members since it is an unpaid and time-consuming exercise?

The Supreme Court, while clearing Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen (1994, stalled earlier by the Delhi High Court) passed strictures against the censors’ interpretation of the censor code, which, it observed, was out of tune with the times.

“We need people with wisdom and a largeness of vision,” asserted filmmaker Saeed Mirza, which means that the censor board should have more liberals who will not mistake cycling shorts for underwear, which happened in the case of Pehlaj Nihalani’s film Dil Tera Diwana (1996).

“Unfortunately, the CBFC is packed with people who are illiterate and insensitive to the reality of India. The level of violence permitted by the censors is alarming. Excessive violence in cinema is bound to make viewers immune to the violence around them,” said producer R.V. Pandit. “We need people with greater intellectual and moral sensitivity to update the censorship guidelines. Else, filmmakers must unite to evolve a code for themselves,” he summed up.

Journalist Derek Bose cites how the CBFC initially refused to certify films like Hukumat (1987), stating it defames the police, judiciary and the entire administration and Insaniyat Ki Dushman (1987) where lawyers are shown supporting criminals), but had to relent when the producers went to court. Kalyug Ki Ramayan (1987) had to change its title to Kalyug Aur Ramayan along with undergoing many cuts and changes when religious fanatics voiced their protest. 

Late filmmaker B R Ishara accused the CBFC for singularly picking on his Society, which was banned, “The guidelines are so vague that they can be interpreted differently by the members. There is no uniformity even in one state leave alone the national level. The censors from the southern states are more liberal and advanced in their thinking than their counterparts elsewhere. Besides, the censor officials and the advisory members are in awe of the bigwigs in the industry. That is how the Raj Kapoors and the G P Sippys and the B.R. Chopras get away with anything in their films and the small producers must go through hell.” He has a point. If awe did not play a part, Aaj Ki Awaaz (1984) and Insaf Ka Tarazu (1980) would not have been cleared at all.”

Curbing or censoring the screening of any film, feature or documentary in any language and format in the name of maintaining public peace and harmony between and among people, or in the name of not hurting the religious or cultural sentiments of a given section of society might sometimes prove to be counter-productive. It can send across a wrong message to the public through misrepresentation of what has been portrayed or wrong interpretation of the story, or message or ideology. Those who object to the screening of X or Y film either in its entirety or in part by imposing cuts on a given film, are either influenced by their personal biases or have some axe to grind.

The emphasis of the CBFC, wrongly, is on literal representation, both for sexual censorship and censorship on violence in cinema. Blocking a literal view of the figure, in violence or in sex, does little to achieve the desired effect of eschewing their effects on the audience psyche. The grounds of censorship will have to be aesthetic rather than social or cultural. The CBFC should frame its future guidelines by considering the film as a total visual and narrative experience.

“To impose a code of censorship that depends upon the literality of representation of particular images is to miss the nature of what a movie screen is and how it works in relation to the regime of desire,” said sociologist Veena Das. She insists that collective imagination constantly lives out the horrors of contemporary forms of politics and violence.

So, guidelines that say that violence in police stations using chains, gun butts and other third-degree methods will be censored lest they offer models for imitation has little meaning. Not showing beating with chains is fine. But the chilling scream of a figure in a darkened cell with a shadow suggesting the torturer can activate the imagination much more strongly in an audience already fed on real-life stories of police torture. 

“Censorship, legal and extra-legal, is a serious inroad on freedom of expression. Censorship is highly subjective and essentially mindless. The main motivation for censorship is intolerance. Conventional wisdom and official ideology cannot be allowed to be questioned and criticized and must be suppressed. Portrayal of historical events that depict a government or certain persons or groups in an unfavourable light cannot be tolerated and should therefore be suppressed by recourse to censorship,” stated Soli J. Sorabjee.

The last word on this may perhaps belongs to Shyam Benegal’s comment on the CBFC brouhaha over Mani Ratnam’s Bombay. “Freedom of expression has in-built constraints. It implies honesty and conviction – honesty about humankind and conviction about the moral right of the film’s statement. Freedom of expression is an empowering process, without which our society cannot grow. And what is galling is that freedom of expression is granted to the leaders of our country but not to the rest of the people.”


Khosla Committee Report, Para 7.14 pp.100-101