On Friday, the government sacked Pahlaj Nihalani as the Central Board of Film Certification chairman and appointed adman and lyricist Prasoon Joshi as the new chief.
Joshi is probably a much better choice than Nihalani to head the Board. In an interview, he had once said that in an ideal world, there should be no censorship. He's now in a position to make that idea come true.
While arbitrary and burdensome censorship was not entirely non-existent before Nihalani, it prospered particularly under him; this needs to change. For that to happen, Prasoon Joshi has to fundamentally overhaul the philosophy of censorship that his predecessor allowed, and even encouraged.
The first order of business will be to comprehensively let examining committee members — who actually watch films and recommend cuts — know that it's time for a much more hands-off approach than what they have so far been used to.
The first order of business will be to comprehensively let examining committee members know that it's time for a much more hands-off approach than what they have so far been used to.
Remember, Nihalani may be gone, but the lists of cuts the CBFC gained notoriety for came from less-known committee members; this was the case before Nihalani and this will continue after him too. These committee members knew that they could be as heavy-handed as they wanted to be under Nihalani, and so felt empowered to demand tens of cuts from filmmakers.
Joshi needs to make clear to these members that their primary goal is certification, not censorship. The CBFC's Board, which heads the organization, has also been reconstituted with members like Vidya Balan and Vivek Agnihotri, who have both expressed support for a freer censorship regime.
Secondly, he needs to reform revising committees. Revising committees are a kind of appeal body within the Censor Board itself who can review decisions made by the examining committee. These committees need to be empowered to be more liberal and actually act as an appellate body.
No filmmaker should have to go to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal or courts to appeal against the Censor Board's decisions.
No filmmaker should have to go to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal or courts to appeal against the Censor Board's decisions. Getting examining committees' decisions reversed — as Madhur Bhandarkar was recently able to do — need to be possible more often.
Third, Joshi must extend these reforms not only to the individuals in Mumbai, but in the many regional offices that the Censor Board has across the country. While these offices are subjected to less media scrutiny, they can be equally, if not more conservative.
For instance, the Kolkata office tried to cut "cow", "Gujarat", "Hindu India" and "Hindutva view of India" from a documentary featuring Amartya Sen. The Chennai office can be much more stifling.
I obtained the certificate for Kavan, a Tamil U/A film — U/A films can be watched by children with adult supervision — and the cuts were staggering. Words like 'shit' and 'screw', and commonplace Tamil swears like 'panni' (pig) were cut. Since resisting CBFC decisions publicly isn't common in Kollywood, there are fewer constraints on how the Chennai office operates. I suspect the situation is similar for other regional Censor Board offices.
But the most important thing Joshi can do is this: work with the government, nay, encourage them, to reform censorship laws in India. Overhauling the unclear and vastly abused media laws, specifically for cinema, needs to be done urgently.
There's only so much a new CBFC chief can do. And, without legal change, we'll always have to depend on others' subjective assessment. https://t.co/iEUUrlQTpJ— Nandita Saikia (@nsaikia) August 11, 2017
As far as Joshi is concerned though, his ability to influence legislative reforms may be limited (although the government may finally clear its backlog on reforming the board now, as the Economic Times reports). But he must work on cleaning up the Censor Board in his role as chairman. Even Shyam Benegal's recommendations to reform the Censor Board may backfire if the toxic culture within the CBFC is not addressed.
Prasoon Joshi may make or break Indian film censorship. He's in a perfect position — and hopefully inclination — to thoroughly review how the CBFC operates. After two turbulent years of Pahlaj Nihalani, Joshi inherits a Censor Board that may just be the most openly criticized and scrutinized media regulatory body in the world.
Hopefully he will do all he can to transform the Censor Board from within and shape it into what it is supposed to be — a classifications authority. But the most pressing question that only time will answer is this: does he want to?