I served on the advisory council of the Censor Board for a term in the mid-2000s and I must say the experience was very interesting.
Apart from having certified Bram Stoker’s Dracula in four south Indian languages, most of which I could not understand, there were films that we rejected outright – they should never even have been made.
All these films denied a certificate were, I remember, entirely exploitative of the woman and the female body, they could not be classified as even D grade – I squirmed through all of them and could not even look up at the others in the room when the lights came on at the end.
Producers of such films would storm out of the screening hall in a real froth, abusing the members of the advisory board — at least two of a total of four certifiers plus a government official would be women.
That was because the government wished to bring both sensitivity and sensibility to the censorship and it was believed that women would be conservative and not allow certain scenes to escape the scissors.
Yet, I discovered that most of the times it was the women on the panel who were both more liberal and liberated.
Men on the panel, without exception, would immediately move to cut out any scenes of a sexual nature, even things like holding hands or couples in bed all covered up, leaving the film quite anti-septic.
I always fought those views, with the audiences in mind believing that even they needed to see what the director meant them to see and that we were unnecessarily imposing our own notions of morality upon an audience which was mature enough to take such scenes in their stride.
To go by the notion of those men, India still lived in the 18th century and no one knew what the birds and the bees were all about (even my niece, 14 years old at the time, knew more).
There were scenes in Dracula that I could do nothing about because the government rules were clear about the amount of nudity that could be shown in Indian cinemas.
But watching the original English version, I thought some of those scenes were very artistic and enhanced the story – sadly they were lost to Indian viewers in all the Indian languages, including the English.
A lot of forgettable films came to the Censor Board for certification but one I took particular satisfaction in helping to bring to viewers almost in its entirety was Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania.
Set in the Gujarat riots of 2002 and based on a true story, the original panel had refused to certify the film, saying it was too full of potential for communal disharmony.
I was appointed to the review committee to decide on its future and Sharmila Tagore, the then chairperson of the Censor Board, too, was on that panel along with more than two other women (as far as I remember we were five women in a larger panel taking in all views), some more journalists apart from me, politicians and social workers. As those who might have seen it since would testify, it was a brilliant film with not even a minute of ennui or irrelevance to the times and it pulled at the heart strings.
Since it was based in the Gujarat riots, it was inevitable there would be violent scenes and a lot of conflict between Hindu groups and Muslim ones.
But I thought it was fair and balanced throughout and I take particular pride in putting up a fight against some cautious souls who wanted references to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad deleted and others who wanted Muslims to be seen only as victims.
In the end, the liberal and balanced views prevailed and there were only two cuts: `Vishwa Hindu’ was deleted from wherever the VJP was mentioned and the organisation was called only the `Parishad’ in the film, nevertheless leaving viewers in no doubt who was being spoken about.
And a toast – in whiskey – to Mahatma Gandhi was modified from `to Gandhi’ to `to India’ because the majority view prevailed that Gandhians and prohibitionists could sometimes be as awkward as communal elements over such perceived insults to their icons – and, in reference to this particular film, an inevitable protest from one group would be as much as the censor board could handle.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were no protests when the film released, except inside Gujarat which banned the film anyway.
Which was sad because the father of the little boy lost during the riots, on whom the film was based, would have wanted Gujaratis to see the film in the hope that, perhaps, one of them could have turned up information about his still missing son. But given the fact of Narendra Modi that could not be.
When we all gathered to see the film, we had no idea of the star cast – which had Naseeruddin Shah and Sarika, Kamal hasan’s ex-wife, making a comeback in Hindi cinema, in stellar performances.
They were allowed to enter the theatre only after we had come to our decision – that is the usual practice.
One of my problems with the management of the board when I was on the advisory panel was that they would inform me only at the last possible minute that I had to be at a particular cinema in a particular part of town within an hour or two and, on many occasions, I found it extremely difficult to drop everything I was doing and rush to view the film.
Since I would be one of the two women members, I did not even have the option to, well, opt out of any particular viewing for the board would then have had to cancel the show altogether – and that would put everybody to a lot of inconvenience.
When I protested, I was told that this was the normal practice – the board wanted to give as little time to the certifiers as possible so that corrupt producers or directors could not get to them and influence them to give their films a `U’ certificate. Or to keep the cuts down to the minimum.
So when the lawyer for the Muslim groups who are protesting against Hasan’s Vishwaroopam says censor board members are a purchasable commodity and have deliberately cleared the film for some consideration, he needs his head examining – or at least he needs to be brought up to date with how the board operates.
Members are never told about the film they are expected to certify any particular day, which is why I had to sit through Dracula five times (the first time in English). Had I known I would have refused – I could have spent the time better than going through the adventures of a blood thirsty devil again and again.
I haven’t seen Vishwaroopam yet but based on my experience as an advisory member, I can say such protests were almost inevitable and should have been anticipated by Hasan, given his long experience as a film maker.
I came across directors during my term who deliberately overshot some scenes – or at least included them in the hope that they would bypass the scissors.
And if that didn’t happen, they were willing to snip them out for they were cleverly shot in a fashion so as not to damage the particular film in its entirety.
During my time on the censor board, I learnt that in a country like India one can never expect to escape protests, even over a horse or a dog – wherever such animals were used, producers and directors would be ready with certificates in hand from animal rights groups saying the animal were put through no cruelty during the shooting and that some or the other activist was constantly present on the sets when scenes were being filmed with those animals.
Even Shah Rukh Khan had to drop `Barber’ after `Billu’ from his film by that name because one community thought that was derogatory to them, which was not true at all.
It cannot, then, be easy making a sensitive film, true to reality, because the raw reality is not dependent on dressed-up fictional sensibilities.
But I do hope I get to see the Hindi version of Vishwaroopam without the cuts now being put to the original Tamil. Which is just as well. For despite certifying Dracula in Tamil, I still do not understand the finer nuances of that language, anyway!