Lessons For The CBFC, All Over Again | 12 July, 2019

By Surendra Bhatia

Lessons For The CBFC, All Over Again

It is, perhaps, not enough that col­umnists rant with much frequency about the follies of the Central Board of Film Certification – and only because it insists on goofing up all too often; it’s not enough that the industry is thoroughly fed up of the CBFC that acts – again and again – like some moral police with a censorious mandate to keep India’s cine­ma-watching population on the straight and narrow path, allowing it no excuse to go astray; it is not enough that audien­ces look askance at films that the CBFC has tried to block or ban or re-edit, wondering what exactly was the fuss, more so when the film flops and does not even get seen by too many; but is it now enough that the venerable Bombay high court has thrown the book at the CBFC, questioning its very basis for functioning the way it does?

What has the honorable high court said about the CBFC? A few quotes:

“Are you (CBFC) ostriches? Put your head in the sand and pretend, some­thing does not exist.”

“We actually wonder if the CBFC offi­cials have children of their own. You (CBFC) are a certification board and not a censor board. You will not decide what one wants to watch and see.”

“Nobody has given you (CBFC) the intellectual morality and authority to decide what one wants to watch and see.”

“Looks like we may have to redefine your (CBFC) role entirely. You (CBFC) are forming an opinion that the whole population is infantile and imbecile and you are the only one with an iota of in­telligence to decide for everyone.”

What the court has said is hardly anything new. These are all familiar accusations that have been hurled at the CBFC repeatedly, maybe five times a year since many decades. But the fact that the court has said it, might, just might, din some sense into the heads of those who man the CBFC. The imbecility showcased repeatedly by the CBFC has gone on for too long, irrespective of the chairperson, whether it is Pahlaj Nihalani or Prasoon Joshi. Courts have called out the CBFC many times but never, perhaps, so directly and so harshly.

What is the reason that set the courts to finally disrobe the CBFC?

Chidiakhana is a children’s film about a boy from Bihar who moves to Bombay to pursue his dream of playing top-level foot­ball. While depicting his travails in Bom­bay, the film had one particular scene and use of one abusive word that fell afoul of the CBFC’s high standards of moral rectitude. It informed the producers – incidentally, the Children’s Film Society (India), another government body – that if the two deletions were not carried out, as dictated by the CBFC, the film would qualify only for a ‘UA’ certificate. As the film has been made specifically for kids, and the CFSI wanted to screen it in schools, it was left high and dry: it could not settle for a ‘UA’ certificate as the entire purpose of the film would be defeated. It was left with little choice but to approach the judi­ciary for relief.

The courts, fortunately, saw Chidia­khana as a story about the present times, which the CBFC, caught in a time warp of the early post-Indepen­dence years, refuses to do. The honorable judges had no prob­lems with the use of the abusive word, which the CBFC wanted deleted. They felt that it reflected the times and conditions currently prevailing and that, when a film deals with issues like racism, dis­crimination, child labour and drug abuse, there’s no sense in pretending that everything is squeaky clean. They said: “How else does one show and explain these issues to a child? Is it not better to show such films to the child and explain that this is what happens and this is wrong?”

Government bodies, even if autono­mous, tend to behave like they are sta­tioned in the early years of the previous century. As individuals, people like Pahlaj Nihalani and Prasoon Joshi may be broad-minded and modern but once they get saddled with the responsibility to monitor and regulate what the citi­zenry should consume as entertainment, they become as regressive as a die-hard votary of the Victorian age. Why the position of the CBFC chairperson should transform their value systems is difficult to understand; perhaps, they think of themselves as kindergar­ten school teachers with the responsibility of moulding minds of their wards… or worse, as superior beings who know exactly what is good and what is bad for the nation…

The honorable high court’s indictment of the CBFC should have a salu­tary effect on the functioning of the Board. But will it? Possibly not. It has been through similar indictments earlier too, by the film industry, by the people and by new governments that come in­to power, and that has rarely brought about any change. In fact, when Nihala­ni’s term was truncated and Prasoon was brought in as replacement, there was genuine hope that things would change and the CBFC would become more realistic and more reasonable. That has not happened. The CBFC still acts like a censor board. At worst, Pras­oon’s term will end and another monitor will take over. The only possibility of change is if the high court does take matt­ers in its hands, as it has threatened to, and wrings in far-reaching changes in what should be strictly, just a certification body. Courts, unfortunately, are over-burdened and it is too much to imagine that they would give priority to the CBFC’s book of gui­delines. So, whether it is liked or not, the CBFC shall continue to function as it has done since de­cades, and the in­dustry can go back to banging its head on the wall.

Netflix Steps Hard On The Gas Pedal…

The New India that everyone seems to be talking about seems to have dawned strikingly on the streaming services operating in the country. Over the last couple of years, a plethora of platforms and opportunities have opened up for Indian entertainment, and consumers, earlier making do with TV shows and films in cinemas, are lapping them up with great enthusiasm. Commuters in particular, in metros, trains, buses, cars and taxis, are glued to their smart phon­es, devouring all kinds of entertainment that streaming services and YouTube provide. Today, even during official busi­ness meetings, it’s not unus­ual to spot a character or two sneaking at their phones, mute but tuned into World Cup cricket matches or Wimble­don or foot­ball; some, with Bluetooth devices in ears, watch political rallies too!

In such a scenario, it is not surprising that steaming services like Netflix are on a roll. According to reports, Netflix is currently enjoying much patronage for its Indian movies and shows like Lust Stories and Love Per Square Foot… Buoyed by increasing viewership in In­dia, Netflix, which has released nine titles till date, commi­ssioned last month ten new original Indi­an films, besides the thirteen already under production. It has also released six web series and has five more under pro­duction. India, unsurprisingly, is fast turning out to be a great market for Netflix.

There are two fac­tors at work here, that should offer streaming services great comfort in the Indian market in the coming years: one, Indians seem to have too much of free time! Starved of entertainment, too many Indi­ans have turned into couch potatoes, habituated to sit in front of the TV during dinner, and, often, most of the time when they are home. Even busy white collar executives consider watching TV shows, news or films on their smart phones as a great way to unwind, when they get home. (Earlier, this class of people used to read magazines or books in bed to prepare for sleep but that seems to be history… now it’s all about watching till eyes droop and sleep takes over.) Then, India has a large population of home­ makers who need the sound of TV or shows on smart phones to keep them company as they go through their daily chores of cooking and cleaning. Finally, there is that large population that spen­ds three-four hours a day commuting to work and back. After the official calls are made, it’s all eyes on the smart phone to pass the commuting time. This availability of time, for streaming services, is a huge asset in India. It is estimated that more than in any oth­er country in the world, Indian streaming ser­vice subscribers, take in at least one movie a week!

Apart from the time to indulge, Indi­ans are also being exposed to entertainment quite different from what they get in the usual Bollywood films. This is the second big asset for the streaming services: the unusual and unique story lines. It has been a long Bollywood tradition to throw into the dustbin any script that tends to be different. Filmmakers here are fond of talking about hat ke subjects but their idea of being different is “in my film, Kareena is playing a small-town girl”, which may be hat ke for Kar­eena but not for the audiences. Strea­ming services, on the other hand, seem to have raided the dust­bin and pulled out the wonderful scripts that Bollywood refuses to make. These are subjects that are often contemporary in their take on modern relationships, or edgy or overly sexual, or fast-moving thrillers with­out the benefit of the usual romantic or comic angles that Bollywood insists on. But these are just the kind that the youth of India, exposed to foreign con­tent, gets hooked on to more easily than the big-budget entertainers of Bollywood, which are an exercise about ‘what the public wants’. Fortunately, stre­aming services have the capacity to buck Bolly­wood trends in their programming; financial investments are not particularly high and the ability to re­gurgitate the cont­ent across 190 countries provides a substantial safety net.

Another huge ad­vantage is that stars don’t make so much of a difference in consumption of entertainment in a palm-held smart phone. The sc­r­een diminishes everything and everyone to such an extent that a Ronit Roy is as good as a Salman Khan, be­cause after a few minutes of watching, it is only the con­tent that matters. If the narrative holds and the content is entertaining, all else gets equalised. In fact, though this is still to be proved, a big star and extravagant pro­duction values make for less interesting viewing on the small screen of a smart phone – for, that is entertainment better consumed in cinemas.

Netflix is gung ho on Indian content, as must be the other streaming services. This is for the first time that non-Bollywood content has got such a vast platform to showcase its merits. (Televi­sion in India is a poor imitation of Bolly­wood in most cases and so doesn’t count for much.) And the reception the con­tent is getting on streaming services is most encouraging. If the innovation in story lines sustains and cinematic qualities improve, there is no reason why Netflix won’t premiere these films in cinemas for a couple of weeks before debuting them online. It’s all about the content, really.

It may seem too much to hope for but success of films on streaming services in India also holds out the hope that Bollywood would take notice and go down the path of more meaningful con­tent. As all know, Bollywood feels safer following trends set by others. If Lust Stories and other series online create more than a ripple, Bollywood would most likely low­er its boat in the waters and try to cash in. It would be wonderful, of course, and all-in-all a win-win situation for everyone, including the oft-neglected audien­ces.

The Lion Roars Again!

So, before we know it, Shah Rukh Khan is back! He has lent his voice to Mufasa in the upcoming surefire super-hit new version of the Hollywood class­ic, The Lion King. While the masterful James Earl Jones has spoken for Mufa­sa in the original film, Shah Rukh has voiced the character in the Hindi dub­bed version. Mufasa, incidentally, is no more than a cameo character as the film revolves around the coming-of-age of his cub, Simba. As an added bonus, Shah Rukh’s son, Aryan, has lent his voice to Simba.