A housewife rolls in bed, mysteriously moaning all alone at night, unable to get sleep. Her husband works with the Merchant Navy, hence is always travelling on work. Her gawky looking young brother-in-law watches her every night from the bedroom door left open. In the morning, the frisky housewife serves breakfast to her shy brother-in-law while they exchange uncomfortable glances. She goes back to bed at night. This same scene gets repeated for hours, only the moans keep getting louder. ‘Aa, aah, aaah . . .’

Few people besides its makers would’ve heard of, let alone watched, the picture playing before me called Mastani Bhabi. It’s my first day at work as advisory member of the Censor Board, entrusted on behalf of the people of India the delicate task of deeming Mastani Bhabi as being okay or not okay for children to watch. Nobody should ideally be wasting their time on this B-grade movie, but that’s another matter.

Show gets over. Lights come on. The Censor Board clerk, who’d been straining his eyes under torchlight, carefully flipping pages of the screenplay to make sure the movie matched its officially submitted script, leaves the room to take a much needed break. Members of the examining committee initiate a discussion, arguing for an ‘A’ (for adults only) certificate for the film. I make a feeble case for a ‘U’ (Universal) rating, given that the movie had neither nudity nor any sexual content. “I thought the sister-in-law had brain fever, she should’ve seen a doc,” I say, but soon stand corrected. “They’ll slip in pornographic scenes when the film plays at small town theatres. There’s nothing we can do about that. The Board has no enforcement powers,” regional officer Vinayak Azad warns us. The film gets an ‘A’ certificate.

The group disperses to meet another day. I leave, dreading the thought of sitting through another Mastani Bhabi for three hours when I’m back for another film. It’s the luck of the draw. Censor Board members aren’t supposed to know which film they are likely to preview, until the movie starts. Such was my oddly gruelling job as honorary commissar of the state before I gave it up after three years (2007-09).

On an average, the Censor Board previews around 13,500 films in a year, which include trailers, short films, documentaries, and advertisements that play at cinemas. Between 1,200 to 1,300 of these films are full-length features. The Censor Board operates from nine cities representing the major linguistic centres: New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Trivandrum, Guwahati, Cuttack, besides Mumbai, the Board’s headquarters in the prime real estate of Walkeshwar that overlooks a plush skyline and open sea, revealing little of the stuffiness the Censor Board is often associated with.

Like all bureaucracies, the Censor Board is a multi-tiered setup. The chairperson of the Board, appointed by the government of the day, is usually a known figure from arts and entertainment.

The chief, when I visited Bharat Bhavan in 2012 for this piece, was Leela Samson, a noted danseuse. Her predecessor Sharmila Tagore was a popular Bollywood actor. The offices are run by regional officers, usually from the Civil Services. Middlemen or agents liaise between the Board and film producers. Around twelve or fourteen years ago, insiders say, the CEO appointed to look after the Board’s administration was removed within a couple of months over corruption charges. The post was virtually abolished thereafter. It has been reinstated now.

“Even for the appointment of the CEO or regional officers, the government prefers bureaucrats with an inclination or interest in films,” says Pankaja Thakur, who took over as the CEO of the Censor Board one and half years back. Ms. Thakur, an officer with the Customs department, has headed assignments like screening baggage at the Mumbai international airport before. She’d carried along a short film directed by her to nail the interview for the Censor Board’s top job. She previews only select films for the Board. Officers under her are supposed to be present at all screenings. “This (the presence of bureaucrats) is only to help members with the laws of the land. It is a punishable offence under the SC/ST Act to offend any person from a scheduled caste or tribe. You can’t necessarily expect a Mumbai housewife to know that, or be aware of laws that protect against denigration of national emblems of India,” says Thakur. On the basis of the same national emblem law, for instance, the Indian tricolour was replaced with a red flag in a scene spoofing the freedom movement in the big-ticket Bollywood comedy Tees Maar Khan.

“You can interpret the same set of subjective guidelines to pass every movie, or censor Tom And Jerry, if you like,” Azad, the regional officer who had recruited me into the Board had once told me. It helped that Azad himself, a former Customs officer, was a full-on liberal type, educated at Delhi’s Hindu College, a good drinker and party person, and generally a fine spirit with a tattoo on his arm. The merit of any rule book, especially something as subjective as the Censor Board’s, lies in the hands of the interpretor. What kind of person gets sent to hold a government position makes all the difference. The guidelines don’t.

Meet the censors

So who are these examining committee members given the task of certifying films and demanding cuts for the rest of India? “There are five hundred citizens, a hundred and fifty of them in Mumbai, appointed from different walks of life. They decide on behalf of the country. Self-governance is the defining principle,” shares Thakur.

In 2007, the Censor Board had come under severe criticism from the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes for passing a song with the word mochi (a cobbler in Hindi) in a film Aaja Nachle, starring Bollywood’s dancing queen Madhuri Dixit. While the word mochi doesn’t refer to a particular caste, only a profession, a perturbed Tagore, the Board’s chairperson then, had called a town hall meeting of Mumbai’s Censor Board members to discuss this and other matters.

This is the first time I’d got to observe the entire army in one place. Some of the members had come down from neighbouring cities and towns like Satara and Pune. They’re paid Rs 800 to attend film screenings. An identity card given by the Board allows them free access into any cinema in the country, so they can check and report to the police if the Board’s rules are being violated—if films are being played without the suggested cuts, or if Mastani Bhabi has pornography slipped in between brainfever moaning scenes. Some of them claimed they had even got theatres shut down. Many spoke at length on the declining morality of Indian films.

Going through the attendance roster of those members now, I realise, a majority of them had listed ‘social service’ as their profession. Board officials tell me it’s euphemism for political activist. They are mostly appointed on recommendation of their local legislators or politicians. “Who’s to say a grassroot political worker doesn’t represent public opinion,” Thakur argues. Though she admits some of the members “do exceed their brief, and many need to be sensitised through workshops so that cinema and art is allowed to push the envelope.”

Advisory members of the Censor Board take sex very very seriously, I figured, sitting with a panel discussing how long the leading man must get to make out with a girl in a pivotal scene in Sudhir Mishra’s film Khoya Khoya Chand. Eleven seconds is too much, said one. Yes, it should be cut at least by half, agreed another. “It’s here that the heroine finds her man with another girl, a shorter scene would curb the impact,” I butted in. The debate carried on for a while.

Indian audiences have still come a long way since the shot of tilting flowers would get used to denote a couple kissing in the cinema of the ’60s or ’70s. A recent hit track ‘Bhaag DK Bose’ from the movie Delhi Belly had got passed without a hitch. The track’s main stanza, played on a loop, refers to a common Hindi expletive. “We didn’t know that when we first heard the song,” says Thakur. However, the film itself being passed without cuts almost cost Thakur her job. Thakur says, “A letter was sent from the Prime Minister’s Office asking for my resignation for letting go a scene insinuating oral sex in the film.” Chairperson Samson stood by Thakur’s call.

Clearly the focus of the Censor Board has shifted since from sex and violence to people’s ‘hurt sentiments’—some of it possibly real, but most of it imagined. After a preview screening of Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar Raj, one of my co-panellists in the room noticed the word ‘ghati’ in the film’s dialogue. Ghati is derogatory slang for someone who’s uncultured or ignorant. There is no known community of ghatis. He demanded that the word be deleted from the film. It would ‘hurt sentiments’. Everyone immediately agreed, as did the director Varma. He didn’t even know the word existed in his film.

Excerpted with permission from Name Place Animal Thing, Mayank Shekhar, Fingerprint.