When Leela Samson was chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification between 2011 and 2015, she tried to downplay the organisation’s reputation for curbing free expression and emphasised the value of certification over censorship. The idea was to bury forever the idea of the “censor board”, as the CBFC is colloquially known. Instead, she aimed to introduce a morality-free system that rated movies according to the age groups for which they were relevant rather than their potential to corrupt innocent minds.

Under its current chairperson, Pahlaj Nihalani, the CBFC is working hard to live up to its unofficial title, functioning more like a "Censorious Board". Movies are not only being bowdlerised ‒ they are being delayed and, in rare cases, shelved.

The major battle that is being waged at the moment is over words and the thoughts that they express. Profanity, even when the situation demands it, has now been elevated to the eighth sin. In some cases, the CBFC is demanding so many language cuts that producers and distributors have been forced to rush back to the editing studio to excise material that could potentially singe the ears of moviegoers. Nihalani did not respond to an interview request.

Another of Nihalani’s most visible achievements is the slaying of the Hindi adult comedy, represented by such films as Masti, Grand Masti and Kya Kool Hain Hum. Characterised by desperate men chasing buxom women, sexual innuendo and scatological jokes, this deliberately provocative but fundamentally harmless genre is in danger of being buried by the CBFC’s puritanism.

Rather than letting audiences decide the merits of the sex comedy Mastizaade, starring former pornographic performer Sunny Leone, three levels of decision makers at the CBFC have decreed that Indians, whatever their age and maturity levels, will not be subjected to the movie’s exploration of extramarital adventure. The movie, directed by Milap Zaveri and produced by Pritish Nandy Communications, has been rejected by the examining committee, the revising committee, which is the first body of appeal, as well as the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, which is the final authority within the CBFC on the matter of issuing a screening certificate.

The producers have the option of dragging Mastizaade through the courts, but the CBFC has cleverly put them in a bind: who would want to be seen as fighting for a movie featuring Leone on the necessary but deeply subjective ground of freedom of expression?

Always conservative, but now even more so

Even before Nihalani, the CBFC wasn't exactly a beacon of liberal thought. Whether appointed by the Congress Party or the Bharatiya Janata Party, previous CBFC chairpersons have influenced taste in small and major ways, whether in the form of cuts or outright refusals to pass films that contain material they deemed to be disturbing.

Whatever optimism there was of a cultural glasnost under Samson and Sharmila Tagore before her was killed by the appointment of Nihalani. There were early hopes that he would empathise with the movie trade’s concerns since he has been a successful producer of potboilers featuring suggestive songs and double entendre dialogue in the past. But these hopes were dashed when it became clear that Nihalani had decided to atone for his sins and make the entire country repent along with him.

Most recently on Nihalani’s watch, Entourage, an insider comedy about Hollywood’s bizarre workings, was released in India with an Adults certificate but without some of the swear words and nudity that would be par for the course in a movie about the American movie industry. Nudity is still a no-no in Indian cinema, but words, however strong, have been permitted in films meant for audiences that are old enough to vote, drive and marry. Not any more.

Hollywood studios are already killing scheduled releases that will not pass the CBFC’s vigilantism. Movies with themes considered Western, decadent and abhorrent to Indian cultural values are the first to go, leaving us with undemanding tentpole films featuring computer-generated animals and latex-clad superheroes. Fifty Shades of Grey, the blockbuster BDSM romance based on EL James’s popular novels, didn’t pass the CBFC’s test. Nor did the sequel to the stripper movie Magic Mike. Featuring Channing Tatum as a burlesque artist, Magic Mike didn’t come to India, and the release of the suggestively titled Magic Mike XXL was shelved after members of the CBFC objected to its very premise.

No smoking, and soon no objectionable thoughts?

Due to the volume of films released across languages every week and the perennial shortage of censors ‒ people from a variety of walks of life appointed by the government to represent the views of the general public ‒ the CBFC’s decisions have never been consistent or easily predictable. The average film distributor’s requirement for a screening certificate that allows for maximum box office business is one of the most important factors influencing movie content. Pre-censorship is rampant in the film trade, initiated by directors, producers and distributors at various levels of the production process to ensure that risks are kept at a manageable low.

Even in the strictest of times, a fair amount of sexual suggestiveness and profanity have crept in, and Indian society is none the worse for it. The difference this time is Nihalani’s reported deep involvement in censoring of films submitted for certification at the Mumbai office out of which he operates. Other CBFC board members have sniped against Nihalani’s alleged autocratic working style on and off the record, but since he seems to have the full backing of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry that appointed him, their efforts have been futile. Nihalani’s appointment was widely perceived as a reward for his strenuous campaigning for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2014 general election, and any campaign to dislodge him will have to acknowledge the clout he seems to enjoy at the highest levels of office.

In any case, Nihalani’s censoriousness chimes perfectly with the current moral climate, where acts and behaviours considered unpalatable by the majority that holds the reign of power are uprooted by law, be it the beef ban in Maharashtra or the continuing refusal to strike down Section 377, which criminalises homosexuality.

Nihalani’s personal contribution to the government’s Swacch Bharat campaign has already resulted in scripts being sanitised or shelved and trailers being launched in the censorship-free web space rather than on television or in the cinemas. The Health Ministry’s strictures on smoking in the movies and its insistence that scenes featuring nicotine or tobacco consumption carry a health advisory has already persuaded filmmakers to excise such moments altogether. The gap between a self-imposed ban on smoking to a larger self-imposed ban on undesirable thoughts is a small and easily navigable one. If a movie with a risky subject or treatment cannot even get a screening certificate, it will not be made in the first place.