The war of words over the Central Board of Film Certification’s contradictory position on profanity in films and the style of functioning of chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani has gained shrillness, urgency and nastiness.

At least two board members – Ashoke Pandit and Chandraprakash Dwivedi – have voiced their dissent against the continuing censorship of swear words and Nihalani's allegedly autocratic ways. Pandit is leading the charge against Nihalani, warning in a Facebook post on Thursday, “If this man continues; the day isn’t far enough when Indian Cinema will truly step into dark ages just because of the doing of one wrong man on a right chair."

On Wednesday, Dwivedi sent an email to other board members complaining that the CBFC was continuing to mute words deemed objectionable in spite of the majority of board members deciding  against this. I "have started feeling uncomfortable of being a part of an esteemed institution where, collective decision of the board is ignored or collective voice is unheard," Dwivedi wrote.

Nihalani did not return requests for an interview.

The point of contention is the CBFC’s insistence on bleeping out swear words from films, including adult-only releases. Last month, the board issued a list of banned words. Following a crucial meeting of board members and senior board officials in Mumbai on February 23, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore announced that the controversial list would not be implemented. Filmmakers interpreted this announcement to mean that the censors would permit the use of profanity. However, the CBFC appears to have taken an extremely bureaucratic view of the situation: it is allowing language mentioned in the advisory but cutting out terms that were not on this list.

Thus, a line from the A-rated March 13 release Focus, “Every other time you speak, I smell vagina,” has been muted even though the movie is A-rated. Vagina was not on the advisory. However, “asshole” and “fuck”, which were on the original list, have been allowed to stay in the movie.

The CBFC’s decisions do not always follow a pattern. In the UA-rated Dum Laga Ke Haisha, the word “lesbian” has been muted. In the A-rated NH10, also opening on March 13, the word “kutti” (bitch) has been replaced with “jhuthi (liar), while several swear words have been muted.

'Blasphemous blunder'

The CBFC’s decisions do not have the approval of other board members, Pandit said. In his Facebook post titled “Tyranny Gone Loose in CBFC”, Pandit described Nihalani as a “wild horse gone amok" The chairman's "ridiculous diktats and autocratic functioning has made CBFC a laughing stock not only amongst the film makers but also the cinema viewing audience", Pandit claimed.

Nihalani, Pandit fumed in his Facebook post, “functions like an archaic monarch” and is responsible for “blasphemous blunder”. Pandit added, “The biggest victim of his warped world view is the Hollywood films which are finding it difficult to get a clearance through the certification board because it does not suit the absent sensibilities of Nihalani."

Pandit told said that Nihalani had created an “atmosphere of terror” by insisting on participating in examining committee screenings – the first step towards getting a rating – even though he is not required to. Over the past few weeks, members of the examining committees have balked at giving certificates to films with mature content. This has forced producers to re-submit their films to the next level, which is a revising committee, thereby delaying the release.

Revising committees are usually constituted in extraordinary cases, but the examining committee members seem to have decided to be cautious rather facing their chairperson’s wrath later.

Fifty shades of contradiction

In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, the international hit about the romance between a young woman and a practitioner of BDSM, the examining committee members declared the film to be unfit for Indian audiences despite the distributor, NBCUniversal, submitting a bowdlerised version. NBCUniversal has not made an official statement about the movie.

NH10, directed by Navdeep Singh and starring Anushka Sharma, had to be submitted to a revising committee after the examining committee expressed its inability to take a unanimous decision on the profanity and violence contained in the thriller about honour killings in Haryana. NH10 was finally passed by a revising committee with 14 audio and visual cuts.

In the case of Focus, the examining committee members demanded close to 100 audio cuts relating to profanity and descriptions of male and female anatomy. The movie was passed after its local distributor, Warner Bros, made voluntary cuts.

Pandit accused Nihalani of creating confusion among the examining committee members on permissible levels of profanity and forcing filmmakers to appeal to him directly for clearance. “He wants producers to beg in front of him, and he gets a kick out of shunting them around,” Pandit told

Pandit, who has previously criticised the All India Bakchod Roast in December and attacked independent documentaries made about sensitive national issues, said, “We board members cannot take the brunt [of the CBFC’s decision]. The film industry comes first. Such decisions are affecting business, and we are here to grow.”

Profanity should be allowed within context, said Pandit, who was tipped to head the CBFC before Nihalani was appointed to the position. “If I don’t call a randi a randi [a prostitute], will I call her a devi [goddess]?” Pandit said. “In this day and age, when everything is available on the internet, how can you behave like this? We have become the laughing stock of the world. We are not vigilantes. The CBFC is not here to teach people how to make films.”

Good CBFC vs Bad CBFC

Pandit is representing himself as the “good CBFC”, along with board members Chandraprakash Dwivedi, sociology professor Nandini Sardesai and Gujarati writer Mihir Bhuta. Dwivedi and Sardesai refused to comment on the latest controversy, while Bhuta said he was busy at a day-long event.

But an email Dwivedi sent to other members of the censor board on March 11 indicates the fissures within the organisation.

Dwivedi wrote that he was pained by the NH10 case since the meeting on February 23 in Mumbai had made it clear that the circular banning certain swear words would be put on hold. He wrote,
“I am not going into the merit of classification/certification or questioning the decision of the board here. In my personal opinion, the spirit with which board tried to resolve the debatable (burning) issue is not taken into consideration and implementation of the circular (cuts regarding cuss words) was against the collective decision of the board of CBFC. I have attended three revision meetings and every time I return home with saddened heart as every time I come to know that the collective mandate (or wisdom) of the board was not communicated to advisory panel.”

Dwivedi demanded another meeting of the board members to discuss “several uncomfortable issues” and lay “unnecessary and uncomfortable questions to rest”.

Every war has casualties

The turf war between the factions within the CBFC could possibly blow over in a few months, but the casualties are being counted by filmmakers whose movies were written and made many months before the sanitation drive. Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s coming-of-age comedy Hunterrr will be released on March 20 with an Adults certificate and audio cuts. The release of Get Hard, a bawdy Hollywood comedy about a millionaire who gets tips on how to serve a jail sentence, has been indefinitely postponed.

Potential targets of the CBFC’s scissors over the next few weeks include Gunman, an action drama with lashings of violence and mature language; Ek Paheli Leela, a horror film starring former porn actor Sunny Leone; Dharam Sankat, a satire on religion; Choone Chali Aasman, about the sexual awakening of a woman affected by cerebral palsy; Mastizaade, a self-declared sex comedy; Bombay Velvet, a period movie set in the 1960s and featuring gangsters and nightclub singers; and Mad Max: Fury Road, a dystopian drama set in the lawless Australian outback.

“I thought we had taken a big step forward when the Minister of State pulled down the circular on profanity,” a producer of an upcoming Adult-rated movie said on condition of anonymity. “But where is this all going? Such decisions hurt all of us, especially considering that these movies have hit the kind of numbers they have been doing.”

Whether it’s a sex comedy or an action flick, filmmakers already know what limits to push, the producer contended. “In the case of sex comedies, for instance, we already practise self-censorship, and we already know what the censors will and will not let through. We know what will make the cut with Indian audiences. There has to be a certain amount of respect for the professionals who make such films – we are not children.”

Vani Tripathi, former national secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party and CBFC member, pointed out that the board had been reconstituted only in January, after the previous members resigned, and that it still needed to “get into gear”.  The board is scheduled to hold a second meeting very soon, she added. “These are teething issues, and this [row] is an internal matter that should not be coming out in this way,” Tripathi said. “We have met only once, and we need to discuss many outstanding issues. Rather than constantly creating controversy, let us sit a couple of times and deliberate on unfinished business.”

On the specific matter of profanity, Tripathi said that it needed to be seen in the context of the larger narrative. “As a person, I am completely pro freedom of speech,” she asserted. “Cinema has evolved over the years, and what was a cuss word in the sixties isn’t one any more. This is something that all of us need to talk about. We need more convergence with not just the Hindi film industry, but all the other regional industries.”