India: Censors under fire

30 May 2016
Still from the film ‘The Textures of Loss’ by Pankaj Butalia

Nearly halfway into the term of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the world’s largest democracy is witnessing an increasingly polarised debate over freedom of expression; and what many critics and civil society members say is an atmosphere of intolerance in the country.

By Ankush Arora    INSIGHT 

When Indian film-maker Pankaj Butalia applied for a screening certificate to his documentary on Kashmir, he had no idea he would be taking the country’s censorship panel to the court.

On 15 February 2016, an Indian court struck down the Central Board of Film Certification’s objections to his documentary, bringing to an end a certification process that started in 2013.

Butalia’s documentary ‘The Textures of Loss’, part of a trilogy on conflicts in India, is about stories of people dealing with personal loss after the protracted violence in Kashmir.

Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, witnessed insurgency against Indian rule towards the end of the 20th century. Amnesty International says the Indian government has allowed “systemic violence to take root in the Himalayan region hit by more than two decades of conflict.”

The human rights violations include extra-judicial killings, mysterious disappearances of people and sexual violence. The report holds Indian security forces responsible for the crimes.

Butalia’s film is about ordinary Kashmiris and their trauma after losing their family members to the violence that began in the 1990s.

Still from the film ‘The Textures of Loss’ by Pankaj Butalia
Still from the film ‘The Textures of Loss’ by Pankaj Butalia

“In 2010, stone pelting took place in Srinagar and around, which resulted in 120 people being killed, young people mainly. So I wrote that paramilitary forces responded with disproportionate violence. They said you can’t use the word disproportionate,” the film-maker said in an interview.

The other objections of the censorship panel were – a widow’s use of the word ‘jihad’ for her husband, who became a militant; a man, while mourning his son, saying ‘the whole of India be damned’; and his comment about how the boy’s killers didn’t spare his face and teeth either.

“Because I believe I could be in trouble tomorrow, I applied for a certificate [a certificate is needed for screening the film publicly] and when I do, you sit back and lose two years of your life just trying to get a certificate. So I was doing it to prove how difficult it is for other people,” he said.

Pankaj Butalia. Photo: courtesy of Ankush Arora
Pankaj Butalia. Photo: courtesy of Ankush Arora

Butalia, who also challenged the censor panel’s guidelines in court, said he hasn’t “bothered” to submit his other films for a certificate. He said the panel would not allow his other documentary from the trilogy, ‘Manipur Song’, because it shows a lot of violence, with people shouting on the street “Indian Army go back.”

While the film-maker fought for his artistic freedom, a Polish theatre crew complied with censorship. There was no particular order as such, at least not publicly known, although it is believed the crew was told to cut a scene (the theatre director said it was done to respect Indian culture), during a performance in the country’s capital in February 2016.

Before the show came to Delhi, its production in eastern Indian state of Odisha led to protests by a women’s rights group, because the play showed a Polish woman in the nude after Nazi soldiers sexually abused her during the Second World War. [Activists of a women’s group staged a protest a day later. They blocked roads, seeking apology for “vulgar display of women’s bodies. It was surprising. Although nudity is uncommon in theatre in India, it has been part of performances earlier.]

But during their second performance in India, Poland’s Aleksander Wegierko Drama Theatre didn’t show the scene that had also caused offence to the Odisha state minister, who sought an explanation from the country’s top drama school for depicting “vulgarity” that is against “Indian culture.”
Interview requests eliciting opinions on the controversy from the Indian drama school and the Polish embassy in New Delhi went unanswered.
Amitesh Grover, the school’s faculty member, wrote a critical opinion piece, The Murder of a Scene, in The Indian Express newspaper:

“While the official response of the Polish embassy and the International Theatre Festival of India takes refuge in the brilliant tactical statement of circumventing a ban on the show — the nude incident was an “accident” on stage — the fact that we need to turn to prudence that is reminiscent of performance practice under dictatorial/colonial regimes is itself alarming. As the country erupts in solidarity for the freedom of expression in universities and elsewhere, a small scene in a play is quietly murdered to let the show go on.”

Atmosphere of intolerance
Nearly halfway into the term of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the world’s largest democracy is witnessing an increasingly polarised debate over freedom of expression; and what many critics and civil society members say is an atmosphere of intolerance in the country.

For example, several incidents in the recent past have triggered concerns related to democracy, religious freedom and the liberty to express dissent. These include – the ban on beef consumption based on Hindu religious sentiments, a Muslim man is lynched to death on suspicion of cow slaughter, and traders are harassed by Hindu groups; attacks on churches; campaigns are organised to convert Indians back to Hindu faith; and warnings are issued against Hindu girls marrying Muslim boys.

The intolerance debate also originated after the murder of three rationalist scholars, whose views on social and religious issues angered right-wing groups. Their murders remain unsolved.

Now, the debate is split along the lines of what is nationalism (as perceived by the ruling party and their supporters) and what is not. This was set off by arrests of sloganeering university students, called “anti-national”, on charges of sedition that were proven false in the court.

The intolerance has not only caught the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama, who recently warned India against being “splintered along the lines of religious faith.” In a statement released in February 2016, well-known global intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and Orhan Pamuk, condemned the government for a “culture of authoritarian menace” in one of its best-known universities. In India, writers, scientists and film-makers returned their awards in protest against crackdown on dissent and incidence of violence based on religion.

As stories related to social and cultural intolerance continue to make top news in India, its cinema – a huge pastime for the country’s over 1 billion people – is being censored in the name of morality and “national interest”.

The history of censorship
Censorship of films and theatre in India is about hundred years old, originating during the British rule that ended in 1947. The Central Board of Film Certification was set up over 60 years ago, around the time India became a republic by adopting a new constitution. The government appoints the members of the panel, including the chair. Revised rules were issued in 1983. Censorship during the colonial era was borne out of tracking seditious and anti-British content that challenged the masters of the day. It also had to do with a moral, paternalistic attitude protecting the public from “indecent and objectionable representations.”

Present-day censorship discourse is, as closely related to nineteenth century Indian bourgeois attempts to carve out aesthetic and moral grounds of judgement in the face of mass publicity as it is to any imported British Victorianism, writes William Mazzarella in his book ‘Censorium – Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity’.

In India, the practice of film censorship became a highly contentious issue since the country’s economy was liberalised in the early 1990s. That period was preceded by a two-year long Emergency in 1975, imposed by the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, suspending civil liberties, including press censorship.

In the 1990s, as India was being exposed to a more globalised content through the arrival of satellite television, an aggressive Hindu nationalist movement was started by what is now India’s ruling political party. The movement’s main aim was to build a temple for Lord Rama – a god of the Hindus – by destroying an ancient mosque, believed to be his birthplace.

Stories of vigilante right-leaning groups attacking different forms of mass media that had content differing from their nationalist and moral worldview were commonly reported in the press, creating an unofficial scenario of censorship.

The Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘My Name is Khan’ (2010) drew protests from right-wing groups because the he spoke in favour of including Pakistani cricketers in the Indian Premier League, angering the Shiv Sena party. The screening of “PK” (2014), a film that ridicules the cult of gods and god-men in India, also witnessed violent protests, including alleged interruption of the show.

The film ‘Bombay’ (1995), about a Muslim girl marrying a Hindu boy during the Ayodhya temple movement and the subsequent violence, faced bomb scares and death threats and heated religious debates. Lesbian films like ‘Fire’ (1996) and ‘Girlfriend’ (2004) too faced protests against theatres screening these films.

Despite a screening certificate, films like ‘Fire’ and ‘Bandit Queen’ (1994), for example, faced the ire of religious-minded groups for their explicit portrayal of nudity, rape, lesbianism and even masturbation.

India’s history of censorship also comprises of artist MF Hussain and author Taslima Nasreen being hounded out of the country because certain Hindu and Muslim groups found some of their works offensive. In 1988, India, then under a Congress government, banned Salman Rushdie’s novel “Satanic Verses”, considered blasphemous by Muslims. The controversy haunted him years later, when the Kashmir-born author couldn’t travel to the cities of Jaipur and Kolkata because of threats to his life.

The censorship panel
The contemporary discourse over film censorship in India has been dominated by an outcry over the grandfatherly-type moral tone adopted by the censor chief. At the centre of conflict is Pahlaj Nihalani, the head of the censorship panel located in the city of Mumbai, where Hindi films are produced.

Pahlaj Nihalani, Chair of the Panel
Pahlaj Nihalani, Chair of the Panel

Since Nihalani’s appointment as the panel chairman last year, several Hindi and English language films have had to face “cuts” for love-making scenes, cuss words, and content that has political or religious subtexts. Although such orders by the censor panel are not new, what has alarmed producers and actors is their frequency.

Last year, the panel drew flak – and ridicule – for its decision to trim by half two kissing scenes in the latest Bond film ‘Spectre’. As news of such orders continued to trickle in, and film critics, producers and viewers expressed their outrage, the government decided to set up a committee to reform India’s censorship process. The committee is likely to submit its recommendations in April, 2016. (More here)

Miffed with the censor panel’s so-called regressive ideas, the demand for a change in the functioning of the panel has grown, with some filmmakers asking for a ban on censorship and introducing a rating-based system only.

Even though this is not the first time that a revamp has been planned for the censor panel, the development has been seen as an indirect criticism of the panel’s functioning.

Nihalani, however, says India should have a wider rating system to allow different forms of content, including sexually explicit scenes and violence. But in his defence of the panel’s decisions, he often cites promoting Indian culture as the benchmark for clearing films.

Nihalani, who doesn’t mind being called conservative, has problems with content that has pun-intended dialogue, abuse and offensive material. “How can we allow ourselves to give young generation wrong education?” he said in an interview that gives a lot of insight into his perception about what should be seen.

As with many conservative societies, many Indians expect their children to be obedient, not questioning, with women wearing “decent” clothes that are not “revealing”. The expectation of subservience to the family or the head is translated into the state, where the government doesn’t like being questioned. With this government, it’s even worse. They seem to be far more intolerant towards dissent.

This should be viewed in the context of the nationalism debate that celebrates Indian culture – especially, now, in the form of Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Long Live the Goddess), representing the idea of India as a female figure. Many see that as appropriating Hindu culture.

“India has only three ratings. There is a need to change them according to the worldwide rating system. USA has six to seven ratings; Australia and Singapore have six each. My hands are tied because of the guidelines. I can’t say [they are] outdated, but because of the rating our culture cannot permit to do such thing,” Nihalani said in an interview.

The censor panel’s guidelines are as old as independent India is and they reflect the existing premium on morality and squeamishness about matters related to sex. That is despite the fact that India is severely lagging behind in dealing with the rising number of sexual crimes against women.

Women and girls being subjected to eve-teasing, harassment, groping and staring are common on India’s streets, offices and homes. It is ironical that India’s discomfiture with sex has to be seen with its exploding population, expected to overtake China soon.

So, there is no doubt that India is having a lot of sex; and has a proliferating culture of people watching porn, even though the country is still finding ways to ban it. At same time, India can’t accept sex as a society, evident from one of the censor panel’s guidelines – to provide “clean and healthy entertainment”.

“They go on to say that the films promote scientific temper. Why? What if I don’t believe in scientific temper? I have a right to espouse my views. The guidelines are too general and violative. Offending your sensibilities is not a ground for impairing free speech. It’s a clear judgement by Supreme Court. But the guidelines say that you don’t offend anybody,” Butalia said. The hearing in his case challenging the guidelines is due in April.

Film poster Father, Son and Holy War
Film poster: ‘Father, Son and Holy War’ by Anand Patwardhan
Film poster Jai Bhim Comrade
Film poster: ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ by Anand Patwardhan


Sex or nudity is not the only point of objection. Political topics involving crimes linked to religion or caste make the job of the censors’ even more precarious, in a bid to avoid causing offence to communities or politicians. Case in point is Indian film-maker Anand Patwardhan. He is known for his protracted legal battles against censorship for making documentaries on – prejudice and violence against Dalits (also referred to as ‘untouchables’ or backward), nuclear tests in the Indian subcontinent, and the prevalence of patriarchal violence in social rituals and religion. [Anand Patwardhan fought against all cuts and won. And even after winning the battles, he continues to fight. He was one of the film-makers to return his awards in protest against intolerance. More here]

Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan
Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan

A new book by Indian film critic Mayank Shekhar provides an interesting, if not surprising, insight into the working of the censor panel. Members of the board shall hold office during the pleasure of the government, the law says. (More here). Several censor board chiefs have been from the film industry, including current chief.

“Even for the appointment of the CEO or regional officers, the government prefers bureaucrats with an inclination or interest in films,” says Pankaja Thakur, former board CEO, quoted in Shekhar’s book.

Apart from being shown prudish, the members are uncomfortable with scenes showing violence, or comments about India’s diverse caste and religious communities. The panel previews thousands of films each year, with over 1,200 being feature films. The members, about five hundred people working from regional centres, decide what the rest of the country should watch. The panel, however, like any government-run institution is run by the bureaucracy, Shekhar writes in an excerpt from the book.

In an episode reminiscent of the “Spectre” controversy, advisory members find an eleven-second love-making scene in ‘Khoya Khoya Chand’ (Lost Moon) “too much… and should be cut at least by half.”

“It’s here that the heroine finds her man with another girl, a shorter scene would curb the impact,” is Shekhar’s reply, as one of the advisors to panel, during a debate with his colleagues.

But he suggests there are no clear answers to questions of sex and morality.

“The law on anything to do with morality, vulgarity, sex, and other subjective matters will always remain open to interpretation, and individual judgment. Hence, the Censor Board can only be as progressive or in tune with reality as the person heading it,” he said in an email interview. He also said that the recent “diktats” of the panel have been “near-Neanderthal.”

Online campaigns by independent websites such as #SaveOurCinema and ( organises petition and campaigns to mobilise support for issues and work with decision makers; has 300 payee clients, including Amnesty. (More here). The other website was started by a few redditors, protesting against the “ridiculous curtailment” of freedom of expression.

“Have you recently gone to a movie in India and scratched your head trying to understand what was going on because of all the muted dialogues?” #SaveOurCinema’s introduction reads, a reference to the recent cuts in films that have attracted the ire of people.

What’s missing, however, is a campaign by the film industry players, who otherwise take to social media or give press interviews to speak against censorship. And that’s Butalia’s problem too. He said the feature film industry is not “really bothered” nor does it challenge the guidelines, but “bargains” [In 2014, a corruption scandal hit the panel, CEO was booked for asking for bribe from an agent, (more here) with the censor board.] The documentary producers, he said, are “too small to fight against censorship.”

Nihalani, whose views on censorship are retrograde according to Butalia, said the debate over freedom of expression is restricted to a few unhappy producers.

“There are only a handful of producers who are saying that according to the guidelines freedom of expression is being stifled. They are habitual about creating controversies, who have been grumbling since their first film. Definitely, it’s a job in which someone will be happy and someone will not be,” he said.

And with a committee being set up to examine the film certification process, the chances of a campaign by producers, directors or actors are slim.

“We have made our views known and the government has appointed this committee, which comprises of a very good representation from the industry. What is important is that the recommendations made by the committee are implemented,” said director Hansal Mehta during a phone interview from Mumbai.

The films first go to the examining committee, then to revising committee if the former can’t decide, if there is still no solution then the client can go to the film certification appellate tribunal. (More here).

Political appointments
The censorship discourse in India has moved beyond subjective interpretation of what is offensive and what is not. Larger questions about the autonomy of its cultural as well as educational institutions are being raised.

Nihalani, a former film producer, is an admirer of Prime Minister Modi, having made a video praising the Indian leader and his election promise of reviving the country’s economic growth and job market.

And yet, it is not only his appointment to the censor panel that raises concerns of partisanship or nepotism. At least five of his colleagues are either members of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its ideological parent, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In October 2015, students of India’s top film school, located near Mumbai, ended an over 100-day strike against the appointment of a ruling party member as their chairperson. The appointment of a former actor, whose credentials the school’s striking students found un-exemplary apart from his affiliation to the ruling party, added fire to criticism that the government had been giving top positions to its loyalists.

“Sidelining merit while making appointments to academic or cultural bodies of course ends up harming institutions. Now the logic given to that is all governments do it on the basis of political affiliations. BJP is only doing what the Congress has always done. Well, now that does not make it okay,” film critic Shekhar said.

The so-called interference in institutions, seen with a recent crackdown on sloganeering students in universities, is part of a bigger debate over India’s nationalism, which is being seen as hyperactive. Phrases such as “anti-national”, insult to “Mother India” or “Muslims should go to Pakistan” are often heard, some of them spoken by lawmakers.

When Indian actor Aamir Khan joined the chorus against intolerance in 2015, he was asked to go to Pakistan by the Shiv Sena group, BJP’s local political ally. The actor said his wife asked him whether they should “move out of India”, while adding that there was a sense of fear and insecurity.

Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali cancelled his [2015] concerts in India after the Shiv Sena, known for its views against the neighbouring country, threatened to disrupt the performance.

“What has happened is what the Shiv Sena was doing and others is now being done by groups everywhere. That danger and creating that level of fear in society is what is now being tested. If we manage to stand up to it I think it might recede, if we don’t it’s going to explode,” Butalia said.

Postscript: In April 2016, the committee, appointed by the government to recommend reforms for the censor panel, submitted its report. In an interview to a newspaper, the head of the committee, Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal, said the “Central Board of Film Certification” should keep within the bounds of its job, which is to certify and classify films according to the age and maturity of audiences.”

Benegal’s views on censorship are well known, he is against “application of scissors” by the film certification board. The report has recommended more categories for film certification and suggested a new process of appointing members of the censor panel, who are currently selected by the government. The recommendations can be read here.

Ankush Arora is working as a communications consultant for U.S.-based think tank Institute for Transformative Technologies. He earlier worked with the India edition of as a web producer; anchored a show on the Indian stock market for the China Central Television (CCTV); and wrote about New Delhi’s art and culture scene. Ankush Arora lives in New Delhi.

This article is part of a Freemuse  INSIGHT  series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in June 2016.

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