THE EVENTFUL AND barmy reign of Pahlaj Nihalani is over. So spooked have filmmakers been by the spectre of Nihalani working his scissors as the release dates of their films neared, that his ouster, when it finally occurred, resulted in a gush of tributes for the new chief, Prasoon Joshi. Anurag Kashyap, who had a public spat with Nihalani over the release of his film Udta Punjab, seemed incapable of containing his joy. He told reporters, “It’s like wow! Did this really happen? And that, too, before my film came out.” He also said, “What is amazing [about Joshi’s appointment] is that a dialogue is possible... [With Nihalani] it wasn’t a dialogue but only a monologue, where he would be the one talking; and he’d tell you what to do.”
A resumption in dialogue between an agent of censorship and a film’s makers—which had all but disappeared in Nihalani’s two years—is what most people in the film industry seem to be ecstatic about. Joshi, the India head of a global advertising firm and a writer of poetry and Bollywood lyrics, is viewed as someone who is progressive. A person, who may be close to the current political dispensation (he was among other things associated with the BJP’s 2014 election campaign), but someone who has a more contemporary outlook on cinema and censorship.
What are Joshi’s views on censorship? He ducked that question in an interview with PTI after his appointment, claiming it was too early and he is not yet familiar with the nitty-gritties to answer all queries. But back in 2015, he was more forthcoming in an interview with a Bollywood portal: “I feel censorship is a very sensitive topic. I believe that ideally we should have a society where no censorship is required… But then we are talking about a very, very mature society. We are far from it right now.” And then, appearing to emphasise the point that writers and filmmakers need to act responsibly, he added the caveat, “If I have the freedom to write, then you have the freedom to reject. If I am publishing a work for you, then I also have to give you a right to reject it.”
Joshi’s point, as expressed then, slots itself on the side of those who argue that a certification board should be in the business of not just certifying films (into categories for age-related viewing), but also censoring them; that India is a vast and complex country and is not ready for either total censorship or absolute freedom; and that cinema is sometimes too powerful a medium; and that a ‘movie motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi-darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have an impact in the minds of spectators ’—a Supreme Court observation in 1989.
But the people of this vast and complex country have moved forward in leaps and bounds over the years, socially, economically, technologically, while censorship laws continue to derive their legitimacy from the Cinematograph Act of 1952, an antiquated piece of legislation that leaves institutions such as the censor board like silly-putty in the hands of its members. One may argue about how essential the censor board is for this country. But in practice, as the Nihalani years have shown, the body has a ridiculous propensity to cut, mute and blur films just to serve the idiosyncrasies of a few.
What will Joshi’s aim be at the censor board? Will he serve as a window-dressing for a super- market of ultra-conservatism? Many members of the old guard remain in the body. Or will Joshi reorient the board, rein in the snip-happy, and make the various regional censor boards more accountable for their actions? The real long-lasting change would be to press upon the powers that be that Indian audiences are not infantile subjects in need of protection.