Prasoon Joshi: ‘I believe in the power of informed choice’

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Prasoon Joshi walks the fine line between creative expression and hurting sentiments. The new CBFC chief in conversation with Divya Unny

IN THE LAST two decades, Prasoon Joshi has come to be known as a man with the golden pen. He has written the lyrics for memorable movies such as Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), Taare Zameen Par (2007) and Hum Tum (2004). His felicity with words and dialogues has always revealed a finger on the pulse of human experience. He now takes on his most difficult role yet—as chief of India’s Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC). Excerpts from an interview:

You have always been an artist first. As a writer and a storyteller, do you think it’s fair to censor any kind of creative expression?

Creative expression is intrinsic to me. I have always said that in an ideal or largely uniform world, where sensibilities are in sync, we do not require such filters. But for now, there are some realities of the world we live in. The only way I can see myself being useful is if I can add a perspective with my creative sensibilities and experience. I am positive that we are evolving as a society and we should find a way to navigate [the evolution] as well as possible.

Of course, every industry has these realities you talk about. But now that you have a major responsibility to sign off on which films will and will not reach the audience, what do you think will be your biggest challenge in this new role?

Yes, you are right that there is a certain framework within which any industry operates. And in this case, when commercial interests get linked with creative expression, certain codes emerge.

Now let me tell you about the challenge. Whilst there is no debate in the minds of artistic and sensitive people that certain things which can cause genuine hurt could require some restraint, this develops organically in creative minds. However, being told of their responsibility is what many creative folks little appreciate. And that’s where the challenge starts for a body like the CBFC. We have been given a task to view the work from varied perspectives, where along with art, the social fabric and other factors—especially those related to children and other vulnerable ends of our society—come into play. Whenever, and mostly unintentionally, a creative person or filmmaker misses seeing certain aspects, it’s always a challenge to make them see a varied point of view without making them feel interfered with. And here lies the task.

As the Censor Board chief, what in your rulebook would qualify as worthy of a ban?

It’s truly difficult to give a point of view about a creative product in suspension. One will have to see the overall impact. As far as the functioning of the CBFC body is concerned, there are processes and guidelines in place for certification and rare cases where they may not be given. These are clearly articulated, as they are part of the Act, which is available to all and on websites as well. Additionally, we all know that there are many safeguards and levels of appeals built into the system.

The former chief of the CBFC Pahlaj Nihalani insisted on kowtowing to the ruling regime. This affected the creative freedom of filmmakers. Can we expect your judgement of cinema to be more liberal and less shackled?

Being open minded is a pre-requisite for me as a creative person, for one is venturing into the world of new ideas every day. Artistic sensibility and inspired thought are an integral part of what we are as a civilisation and add dimensions to our existence. But also, for me freedom and responsibility often go hand in hand. As far as the room to operate is concerned, I don’t want to have preconceived notions at this stage and would rather let my own tactile experience play out.

Many new-age filmmakers want to tell mature stories about everything from homosexuality to women’s empowerment. Will their work be judged on words like ‘sex’ or ‘intercourse’ or will it be seen for the subject the film is trying to focus on?

For me, human life is layered and explorations of its complex existence are welcome. Bringing in a nuanced understanding and freshness which are expressed artistically only enriches our world. Having a suspended point of view about certain words and images without context is limiting. A creator’s sensibility has to be experienced holistically. Constantly striving for finer sensibilities is a journey we all are on.

The fact that you have banned the Punjabi film Toofan Singh is already making news. Why exactly has the film been banned and how does one judge too much or too little violence?

It would not be fair for me to comment on work which is under process.

There was a time when women’s desires and female sexuality weren’t a matter of shame but of true expression. Films like Arth (1982) and Mandi (1983) are proof of this. How come it is a struggle to tell bold stories like these today?

Of course, we have made some wonderful films on subjects of female sexuality in the past. But I also feel that such subjects and freedom of expression for women were a part of a very thin upper layer of our society. Today, the empowerment of women is percolating deeper. And the issues that were discussed and the freedom experienced by a select few are now trying to involve women from a larger stratum.

I firmly believe that more women filmmakers should come forward to make films. There is a lot of value to be added. For far too long this has been a rarity, and we need more women filmmakers coming to the fore. Please don’t misconstrue this as [my suggesting that] women filmmakers should tackle only women’s subjects. It’s in the context of all genres, from comedy to drama to thrillers. A good filmmaker is a good filmmaker irrespective of gender and every subject that he or she picks up will have a certain individual eye through which it will be interpreted.

Having a suspended point of view about certain words and images without context is limiting. A creator’s sensibility has to be experienced holistically

On one hand, we talk about women’s empowerment, but on the other, songs with sexist connotations (item numbers) still get cleared by the Censor Board. This is the same board that bans a kiss or an intimate scene in a film. What will be your approach towards such song sequences?

We require a huge attitude change towards such pieces of content. I have spoken in various forums earlier about taking a call not to celebrate a work in the name of art that objectifies and degrades women. In certain aspects, especially when it comes to the depiction of women, as a society we need to deeply correct our course, as much harm, knowingly and ignorantly, has been done. This requires society and audiences to buy in equally. It’s a collective call. Let’s not leave it for the CBFC and other such bodies alone. I have often touched upon the tool the audience carries, that of the power of rejection. Bad work, especially any that demeans women, needs to be rejected outright. From creators to consumers, we all have to be a part of this.

Please name three recent films that you think should have passed without any major cuts.

I have not seen films with this filter earlier and will have to deep dive and see what the specific instances were.

Many artists like Naseeruddin Shah have said that they believe there should be no censorship of any kind, and audiences should be allowed to choose for themselves. In this day and age of social media and the web, where little is censored, don’t you think a body like the CBFC is archaic? And if it must exist, what changes would you propose to its rulebook so that it adds value to art and does not blindfold artists?

I completely understand what our artistic community feels about autonomy in creative work. We have always spoken about it and it’s true that in the changing world of the internet and social media, big changes are playing out. The lines between entertainment, art, gaming, experiential theatre, live and immersive action are blurring, and we need to evolve. We are living in a world where technology is merging the fictional and the real, where screenplays can be—though this is far from desirable—written by Benjamin, an artificial intelligence bot, using neural networks, and theatres are no longer a confined rectangle of light but urban theme parks like Orbi in Japan. The entire manner in which we today create and consume cinema is undergoing tremendous change, and to remain relevant and add value, all of us have to keep pace. In this light, as far as the CBFC is concerned, it currently exists and work has to be done. The question is, ‘Are we going to rise above criticism and make this a collaborative effort and pour in our energies constructively?’

Isn’t it high time we let our audiences decide what’s good or bad for them?

Correct. As far as we can ensure that those who are not privileged [enough] to decide are kept in mind. Say, for example, children and some other vulnerable sections of society. I believe in the power of informed choice, and for that to come into play, it’s important that there are no gaps in audience awareness and information about the kind of content being presented.

Tell us about the films that you grew up with and influenced you?

Initially for me it was the standard 70s and 80s Hindi films, and DD fare with a smattering of what most of us who lived in small-town pre-liberalisation India have seen. Then came a phase of access and a taste for classics and parallel cinema in our country, be it Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen or Shyam Benegal’s work. In the early days of my career, I recall a spree of watching the work of French, Italian and other masters like Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Luis Bunuel , Kieslowski, Kurosawa, and down the line Woody Allen and Iranian cinema. Of late, I have seen some wonderful regional cinema. I am eager to consume the shorts and experimental films of today. And as I mentioned earlier, the world of augmented reality and immersive technology fascinates and draws me deeper. All these have had an overt impact on me that left me reeling for days. I guess I gravitate to cinema that deepens the mystery called life.

Compared to world cinema, India has a long way to go in terms of freedom of expression. Every film seems to have something ‘offensive’ in it. We allow our creative liberties to be curbed in the name or ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’. Do you think this needs to change?

Every society is built and evolves uniquely. And yes, we do have a distance to travel. At the same time, as an artist I see that for creativity to flourish, a certain complexity and intellectual friction comes into play. It gives birth to an ingenious spark. That is the reason we don’t have a uniform world. Different parts of the world will produce different kinds of creative work, born out of the realities of their culture and their times. On one hand, the intricacies in our society have intensified, and on the other, many aspects have evolved. Cinema will have its challenges and its opportunities.

You have written songs of revolution that have become cult hits among the youth, like the songs in Rang De Basanti. Do you think you will able to support the movement within Indian cinema to be able to tell honest stories of our generation?

I am a small spoke in the wheel and if I can make a difference with my contribution and efforts, I am there for it.

Do you agree that art which has been banned generates more interest among its patrons?

Living in a media-euphoric era, anything that is resisted, of course, generates curiosity. But not always does this curiosity get rewarded. Unfortunately, many a time, controversy is the only thing that some pieces of work have to offer.

What advice would you give the emerging generation of filmmakers in India?

Every reality around us shapes our thinking and imagination. Angst and compassion are both important. Be authentic. You are unparalleled and your vantage point is absolutely unique.