The screws have tightened on Pahlaj Nihalani, the headline-grabbing chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, and the pressure is now being applied by the ministry that governs his organisation.

Nihalani was missing from two meetings that could potentially decide the future direction of the board, which has been immersed in controversy ever since he took charge in January . The biggest source of contention has been the board's war on profanity and its demands for cuts that filmmakers claim are arbitary. On Monday, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore met with actors and leading members of the Film and Television Producers’ Guild of India to reiterate the government’s commitment to replacing censorship with certification and perhaps increase the number of categories to strengthen the logic behind ratings. Nihalani was not invited to be at the meeting, but the CBFC's Chief Executive Officer, Shravan Kumar, was.

Rathore was non-committal on queries on whether Nihalani would be asked to step down, but he assured the media that “no one individual can affect the certification of films, so is the process”. He added, “Things are made in such a manner that no one person can hijack the system."

The next day, Tuesday, members of the Board, many of whom were appointed along with Nihalani in January, returned to the same venue for what they unconvincingly described as a “meet-and-greet with the minister”. Most of the board members could not come to Mumbai, where the CBFC is headquartered, since the meeting had been scheduled at the last minute, but the few who did attend included some of Nihalani’s detractors, such as filmmakers Ashoke Pandit and Chandraprakesh Dwivedi and television writer Mihir Bhuta.

Nihalani stayed away from this meeting too, citing ill-health.

Spooked by the scissors

The sessions at the Sun N Sand hotel in Juhu in suburban Mumbai – ironically the preferred venue for film parties and production launches in previous years – sent out a few clear signals. One is that the I&B Ministry is taking the Hindi film industry’s battles with Nihalani seriously enough to send its second-most important representative to meet with them. Another is that Hindi cinema’s heavies have united, at least temporarily, to oppose Nihalani’s allegedly high-handed behaviour over the past few weeks and his crusade against the use of expletives and double entendre, which has affected Hindi and English films alike.

Most recently, NH10, Navdeep Singh’s Haryana-set thriller starring and co-produced by Anushka Sharma, had to settle for audio and visual cuts despite being an Adults only film in order to get a censor certificate in time for its theatrical release. Similarly, the Hollywood movie Focus, which is also A-rated, was referred to a revising committee by the initial examining committee, and was released only after cutting out lovemaking scenes and language deemed to be offensive.

Choppily censored and delayed movies are bad for business, which is why the audience at the conversation with Rathore included the cream of the Hindi movie business, such as Dharma Films’ Karan Johar, veteran director Ramesh Sippy, guild president Mukesh Bhatt, Eros Entertainment head Sunil Lulla, producer and actor Aamir Khan, Disney India head Siddharth Roy Kapur, Balaji Telefilms’ founder Ekta Kapoor, and Excel Films’ Ritesh Sidhwani.

Calming nerves

Both Bollywood and Hollywood studios have been spooked by the moving scissors running through movies in recent weeks. Rathore sought to calm nerves, reiterating that the CBFC would work towards issuing age-appropriate ratings for movies rather than telling filmmakers what they should not include. Rathore also recommended that filmmakers contest the requested cuts and changes. “If a scene is required in a film, I say you keep it,” a Mumbai Mirror report quotes Rathore as having said. “Don’t take any cuts, I promise you won’t face any problems in the future.”

Easier said than done. Most Hindi productions go in for certification barely days before their scheduled release dates. Hollywood movies opening in India have it tougher, since their local representatives need permission from their head offices to carry out changes. The situation is even trickier if the movie is a so-called day and date release – if it is opening in India on the same day as in the US – and utterly complicated if there are language versions. “If I have to get a certificate in time for a day and date release being dubbed in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, I have to first apply for an English version, get it censored, and only then apply separately for the other versions,” said an Indian representative of a Hollywood studio on the condition of anonymity. “For this, I need the final print three weeks in advance, but in the United States, the prints might not be ready more than two weeks before. By the time the movie gets released here, we suffer from negative reviews and feedback abroad, as well as piracy.”

Bollywood is on a collision course with the CBFC because of the sudden confusion over whether a certificate will be given on time, the nature and the extent of cuts demanded, and Nihalani’s refusal to heed Rathore’s promise to put on hold the list of expletives to be excised from films. Unable to persuade the CBFC to see their point of view, and worried about the fate of upcoming movies that were made many months before the CBFC’s new vigilance, the Hindi film industry’s top names swept into Sun N Sand for a hastily organised meeting with Rathore, who has been finding his feet in the ministry headed by Arun Jaitley.

Rathore makes all the right noises

Many of the filmmakers were relieved by Rathore’s willingness to lend an ear to their problems and his reassurances on other nagging obstacles, such as the intrusive anti-smoking advertisements and the health advisory that has to be pasted over scenes featuring cigarettes. Rathore said he would study the issue, while also pointing out that the anti-smoking disclaimer involved other governmental agencies, such as the Health ministry. One of the suggestions was to commission a series of short films against smoking that would be at the very least aesthetically more pleasing that the ones currently being used.

“I thought that Rathore was very responsive and while he kept saying that we cannot talk about ousting Mr Nihalani in any way, he did emphasise that the board is for certification and not censorship,” said filmmaker Kiran Rao, who attended the meeting. “He did not commit to whether profanity would be permitted or not, but he promised that no more words will be added to the existing list. In real terms, the meeting was about airing our grievances, and he gave us fairly good answers. This is an open-ended conversation, one that we will need to pursue.”

Badlapur director Sriram Raghavan, who was also at the gathering, felt that no instant solutions were offered, and that Rathore appeared to be “receptive and listening” to various niggling issues. Badlapur, an A-rated film that was released with audio and visual cuts, had to run a disclaimer in a sequence featuring a crow that the bird had been computer-generated and therefore suffered no cruelty during the filmmaking process.

“It is good if films get censored a month in advance in case cuts are required, but by the time you go from the examining committee to the revising committee, a lot of time has been lost and the producer is a nervous wreck,” Raghavan pointed out.

Knee-jerk solidarity

The report of the committee headed by retired Chief Justice of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana Mukul Mudgal was briefly discussed. Among the committee’s suggestions, submitted to the previous Congress government in 2013,  is to change the way in which people are selected to be on the examining committees that first view a film when it comes in for certification. The committee also suggested making the Film Certificate Appellate Tribunal, which is a part of the CBFC, the final body of appeal over the courts.

The Mudgal committee report has the potential to solve some of the problems being faced by filmmakers, said director Ramesh Sippy. “Rathore gave us a feeling of comfort that the ministry is on our side, and the overall attitude was that what has happened has been unfortunate, but we need to get over it and look ahead,” Sippy said. “The main problem is that the film industry comes together on such issues at the last minute.” On the issue of setting up a self-regulatory body, which is the case in the US, Rathore admitted that it was too early to move in that direction, Sippy added. “The film industry should also try to do their best and certify their films earlier than usual.”

Nihalani has been maintaining a selective silence on the issue, and did not respond to a text message from requesting an interview. But he chose to air his views in an interview on the website Bollywood Hungama, which ran on the day Rathore met the Hindi film industry representatives. Nihalani claimed that he was a victim of a smear campaign. “All I can tell you very categorically is that I’ve been working within the I&B and CBFC’s guidelines,” Nihalani said. “Maybe so far the censor board has been functioning in a different way. And some people don’t like the fact that I’ve restored discipline and transparency in the workings of the CBFC.”

Nihalani shot down criticism aired by CBFC members Ashoke Pandit and Chandraprakash Dwivedi on his allegedly autocratic style of functioning. “If anyone chooses to go public with grievances against a governmental organisation, he or she is working against the interests of the government,” said Nihalani, who is perceived as being close to BJP member Shatrughan Singh, and whose appointment as CBFC chairperson was seen as a reward for producing the music video Har Ghar Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi during the run-up to last year’s Lok Sabha election. From the day I’ve taken over as chairperson of the CBFC they’ve [Pandit and Dwivedi] ganged up against me," he claimed. "Without the permission from the I&B ministry they’ve been publicly commenting on the internal workings of the CBFC.”

The knives are out

Nihalani wasn’t present to defend himself at the March 17 meeting of the CBFC members in Mumbai, which was attended by Pandit, Dwivedi, Bharatiya Janata Party member Vani Tripathi, and Mihir Bhuta, one of the writers of the blockbuster television soap Devon Ka Dev Mahadev. Nihalani’s critics struck a conciliatory note afterwards. The three buzzwords were “transparent, friendly and progressive”, Dwivedi said.

Bhuta said some of the CBFC’s problems were administrative and structural. “The number of films to be certified is enormous, and the use of technology, such as online certification, is required," he said. "The problems are not ideological – when there are so many people involved, there is bound to be a difference of opinion.”

How will the minister’s assurances trickle down to the examining committee members, and will the current war on profanity be called off? “Everything starts at the top, and the message will percolate downwards,” Pandit said. “The filmmaker should not feel that he is going to a police station” rather than a certification body.