The Big Censorship Scandal


By Khalid Mohamed

Question: Why am I not surprised – at all – by the brouhaha over the censor board CEO Rakesh Kumar?

Front page headlines scream out about the charges of corruption, a lagaan levied on films which would have been delayed if the agents hadn’t fixed the process.

From a Chhatisgarhi film to Kick and Singham, reportedly these had to go through the unholy process. Sajid Nadiadwala and Rohit Shetty had to drive down to town to meet Rakesh Kumar. It feels good to have big names dropping by for a cup of chai and presumably a double-edged conversation, isn’t it?

So, the proverbial can of worms has been opened: how and when the new government deals with it, again, is a question mark. Will matters be prioritised? Who knows? But we do care.

Censor Board chairman Leela Samson

Censor Board chairman Leela Samson

The Delhi-based Leela Samson, chief of the Central Board of Certification, has given an interview, after years of stony silence, clearing herself of any involvement in what her CEO was doing behind her back. He reported directly to the Information and Broadcasting ministry anyway. She was aware, in some way or the other, about the goings-on, but matters have come to a head, only after the CEO’s deeds became public knowledge.

I totally admire Ms Samson. She is an admirable artiste, one of the best classical dancers in India today. She does the right thing. But she doesn’t come from the film industry per se. And currently the demand of aggrieved filmmakers is that the chief should be sourced from the film trade. Lots of confusion and wishful thinking out there. Ms Samson has also declared that she will refuse any extension of her tenure.

Earlier, the chairpersons from the industry have included Hrishikesh Mukherjee (perhaps the most enlightened chief at the board ever), Vijay Anand (quirkily he had asked for the initiation of cinema showing triple x-rated movies), Asha Parekh (hardworking but eventually ineffective), and Anupam Kher (no major changes made by him either). Ms Samson’s appointment was a curious one, but since her knowledge of the arts is unquestionable, it was okay.

pankaja thakur

Pankaja Thakur, former CEO, Censor Board

In any case, her CEO Pankaja Thakur became the face of the board, fielding the controversy which had broken out on the re-certification of film for telecasts. Seminars followed with Ms Thakur, Mahesh Bhatt and reps of The Dirty Picture exchanging notes about the imbroglio. Then Ms Thakur’s term ended. Bye bye seminars.

Okay, so this is the backdrop to the state of things at the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) located in a largely sun-deprived building on Walkeshwar. Over the decades, I’ve landed up there to interview the chiefs on censorship and why there is relentless arbitrariness. For instance, Aamir Khan and Emraan Hashmi may get by unscathed with kissing scenes, other actors might not.

The blame is laid on the panel members summoned to censor a film. If the members happen to be strict they’ll snip off even a cleavage. If not, nudity bhi chalta hai.

Now, as it happens, a lenient panel can also be summoned by the regional officer in charge of schedules.

While being a panel member on the censor board, I found myself on call only Gujarati and Bhojpuri films for some reason. The stray few Hollywood films I was called for, were another story: whatever cuts or a straight clearance asked for, after discussion with the other panel members, were rarely implemented.

rakesh kumar

Present CEO of Censor Board, Rakesh Kumar in CBI custody

The ‘responsibility’ assigned was a waste of time, to which co-panelist Manmohan Shetty had assured me, “It will always be like just enjoy the movie.” His words some decade and a half later, still make sense. I’d quit halfway through my three-year term on the advisory panel. There was a thicket of stuff going on there, it was a Rubik’s cube, a puzzle which I’ve never mastered.

Frankly, this piece following the Rakesh Kumar issue, could go on and on, about what I’ve sensed at the censor monolith in the last three decades, beginning with an expose of sorts in The Illustrated Weekly of India. Not much has altered. Can it? I doubt that. It was my mentor Bikram Singh who had said accurately, “A censor board can only reflect the character of its chairperson. A strong one will ensure progressiveness. A weak one will only warm the kursi.”

To illustrate my argument about the Kakfaesque manner of working of the censor board, I can only offer some personal points of experience.

  • Saryu Doshi, renowned art authority, was actually attacked physically by a peeved film producer after a censor screening at the Eros preview theatre.
  • To get a certificate for one of my films , I was told by the producer to visit Anupam Kher at the Walkeshwar office to get him to sign the certificate. I did. Kher said it would have been signed anyway but this was just five minutes before the office closed. If the clerk there had chosen not to put it among the stack of papers to be cleared, the film’s release would have been delayed.
  • This film, I had wondered, could be shorn of some its scenes by a draconian panel. The producer said, “Don’t worry, apna aadmi hai wahan. Ho jaayega.” Ho gaya.
  • For Tehzeeb, a woman panel member objected to Urmila Matondkar’s cleavage. When I pointed out that she had changed into a polo-neck in the next frame, that it wasn’t exploitative. Cleavages happen. Mercifully, the lady said, “Okay” but not without commenting on the film’s cinematography and music score. She had tips to offer. Whoa!
  • For my documentary, Little Big People, on talented street kids, my producer friend said, “Just go through an agent…he’ll do it all for you.” He did. But to get the certificate in hand, I had to wait in a stuffy ante-room crammed with agents. I had been given a turn would probably come in three or four hours. An agent said, “You go,I’ll get it done.” He did, no charge, he just didn’t like to see me sweat and fret in that room.
  • Would it be possible, to meet Ms Pankaja Thakur? The sepoy there returned the question, with, “Why? What is the matter? Tell me about it..” I didn’t. Procedures have to be transparent. Will that ever happen?

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.


Follow Khalid Mohamed at @Jhajhajha on Twitter

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