How Bengali Film 'Shaheb Bibi Golaam' Made It Through The CBFC Bureaucracy Relatively Unharmed

29/06/2016 4:22 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Courtesy Pratim D Gupta

Filmmaker Pratim D Gupta's Bengali feature Shaheb Bibi Golaam is all set to arrive in theatres in West Bengal and select parts of the country on August 26 — seven months after it was originally supposed to.

The suspense thriller has been through three stages of the film certification process, dealing with the bureaucratic ways of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). On Wednesday, The Telegraph published a first-person account of the ordeal Gupta was put through to get his film — featuring Anjan Dutt, Swastika Mukherjee, and Ritwick Chakraborty as 'Shaheb', 'Bibi', and 'Golaam' respectively — released. While he initially hoped to get a U/A certificate, the film, which was initially denied a certificate, will finally release with an A (adults only) rating.

shaheb bibi golaam

In late December 2015, Shaheb Bibi Golaam was screened for the CBFC's first stage: the Examining Committee, comprising two men, one lady, and the regional officer (RO). Gupta describes what happened after he was, along with his producer Firdausul Hasan, were called into the room:

RO: You’ve used the word BDSM in a scene. What is this BDSM?

Me: Bondage Domination Sadism Masochism.

Pin-drop silence as the members look at each other.

Me: It’s about role-playing in love-making.

There’s still no reaction. Finally the RO breaks the awkward silence. “We have one lady member short today; so there will have to be another screening next week.”

At the second screening, he was told that two of the lady members — neither of which included the woman from the previous committee — were against certifying the film because the found Mukherjee's character "morally degrading", as per the rules stated in the Cinematograph Act of 1952 (which is said to be outdated and far too broad in its purview). The RO told Gupta that he personally "loved the film" and found it "progressive"; however, as per the rule book, he would have to send it to the Revising Committee, a six-member committee of Board members chaired by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of Parliament, George Baker.

"My hands are tied. Finding a sensible member for this committee is like finding a polar bear in Calcutta!" said the RO by way of explanation, according to Gupta.

When he argued that rape was violent, pervasive and that cinema is supposed to mirror what happens in society, Baker replied: "I understand that. You understand that. But will Montu on the streets understand that?"

Several weeks later, on the day they'd intended to release the film (January 22), the RC saw the film (along with the RO, who was watching it for the third time). Baker, a former actor well-known for his work in Bengali and Assamese cinema, congratulated him on the film but asked him to entirely delete a 'savage' rape sequence from the film. When he argued that rape was violent, pervasive and that cinema is supposed to mirror what happens in society, Baker replied: "I understand that. You understand that. But will Montu on the streets understand that?"

In effect, the line of thinking adopted by the RC was that films were supposed to be censored as per to the perceived moralities of the mythical 'man on the streets', not their own. It appears to stem from the idea that the average Indian viewer is not mature enough to separate fiction from reality and needs to be 'protected' from truthful depictions. Once again, as they do week after week, the CBFC took upon the responsibility of mollycoddling audiences rather than just doing their job i.e. certification.

Declaring that he wouldn't cut the scene from the film as it was "pivotal" and not meant to titillate viewers, Gupta took his fight to the next stage: the Film Certificate Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). As the committee had no members who understood Bengali, he took three weeks to add English subtitles to the film and translate the entire script in the same for their benefit. They were granted a screening date nearly two months later, on April 19.

In its written order, the FCAT concluded: “We do not agree that the character in any manner may establish a bad precedent in the society or may have the effect of desensitising or debasing women so as not to merit public exhibition.”

Gupta and Hasan travelled to Delhi for the screening, which was in the presence of a retired High Court judge and three other members. "Initially, just like the CBFC, they wanted to take out the entire rape sequence, which also includes a lot of violence," said Gupta, in a conversation with HuffPost India. "Then I explained that the plot wouldn't make sense without it. Also, nothing [in the sequence] is there for titillation because there is zilch skin show."

anjan dutt

Anjan Dutt in a still from 'Shaheb Bibi Golaam'

Eventually, the FCAT asked Gupta to delete a part of the scene that implies penetration, following the unwritten norms of censorship that often takes a more lenient stance towards violence than sex. This is a dichotomy that exists even in the United States — renowned film critic Roger Ebert, for example, has written about how Hollywood misuses violence and may be guilty of "perpetuating and reinforcing it". But in India, there are scenes of violence that are passed without problems in films certified U or U/A, while sex automatically earns one an A rating (and nudity, if at all any filmmaker attempts to depict in their film, is usually deleted).

They also asked the makers to mute six cuss words — a tiny, expendable fraction of the actual amount of profanity in the film. A small price to pay, but it begs the question: what aspects of Indian culture and delicate 'public sentiments' will they have saved from harm by deleting even those words?

In its written order, the FCAT concluded: “We do not agree that the character in any manner may establish a bad precedent in the society or may have the effect of desensitising or debasing women so as not to merit public exhibition.”

Now, with a little under two months to go for the release of Shaheb Bibi Golaam, Gupta is relieved that the film he made will be shown to audiences relatively intact, its limiting A certification notwithstanding. "Although there is no nudity, a woman having sex outside marriage would have never got a U/A in this country," he opined.

Shaheb Bibi Golaam is being distributed by Drishyam Films and will be released with English subtitles on August 26 in West Bengal as well as Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Bangalore, and Hyderabad.

Also see on HuffPost:

Censorship in film

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