Censoring ‘Fire’, ‘Zakhm’ and ‘Elizabeth’: Asha Parekh on her stormy stint as censor board chief

Between 1998 and 2001, the actress steered the Central Board of Film Certification through real and manufactured controversies, she reveals in her memoir.

Asha Parekh’s gorgeously produced autobiography The Hit Girl, written in association with journalist and filmmaker Khalid Mohamed, provides a detailed account of the transformation of the suburban middle-class Mumbai resident into one of the most reliable and popular actresses of the 1960s. Born to Salma Lakdawala and Bachubhai Shah in Santa Cruz in Mumbai on October 2, 1942, Asha Parekh developed an early love f or dancing. She first appeared on the screen in a small role in Bimal Roy’s Maa in 1952, and finally got her big break as the heroine in Nasir Husain’s Dil Dekhe Dekho in 1959. She was one of the top-earning heroines in the ’60s, with such hits as Ghungat, Gharana, Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai, Love in Tokyo, Kati Patang, Teesri Manzil, Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki and Caravan. Parekh later became a producer and also served as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification from 1998 to 2001. These edited excerpts reveal her experiences as the censor board chief.

The preceding chairman Shakti Samanta had ably occupied the hot seat from April 1991 to June 1998. Owing to ill-health, aggravated by the restless face-offs with filmmakers who would raise a hue and cry about cuts and deletions, he had chosen to move on. “God bless you,” he had said succinctly when I met him a few days before taking over as chairperson. “All the best.” On asking for tips on how to conduct myself, he had replied, “Don’t ever buckle under pressure.”

Asha Parekh as a child. Courtesy Asha Parekh The Hit Girl/Om Books International.
Asha Parekh as a child. Courtesy Asha Parekh The Hit Girl/Om Books International.

The post of the Film Censor Board’s Chairperson is an honorary one. An Ambassador car, air-conditioned, and chauffeur to transport me on an average on alternate days from my house to the Walkeshwar office at an hour’s distance, were allocated. The Board’s Regional Officer, Sanjivani Kutty from the IAS cadre, was helpful, patiently acquainting me with the procedures of the Board and its structure made up of the local examining committees and revising committees in the various filmmaking centres (Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Thiruvananthapuram, Chandigarh, Kolkata) and the appellate tribunal in New Delhi. Contrary to the general perception, the chairperson does not see each and every film except in situations demanding his or her unavoidable intervention.

Within days of entering the Walkeshwar office, there was a conflagration on Deepa Mehta’s Fire, released overseas in 1996 and in India two years later after it had garnered global acclaim at several international film festivals. The bold theme of same-gender love between two women, I agreed with the censorship committees, had been depicted aesthetically without a speck of sensationalism. No one had lobbied for the film’s clearance, there was no reason to ban it at all or delete a kissing scene between Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das.

Political parties begged to differ. A hullabaloo broke out. Protests and demonstrations verging on the violent were held outside the Gaiety and Eros Cinemas where Fire was being screened. The film was alien to Indian culture, it was claimed. Sanjivani and I stuck to the collective decision, the censors would not recall the film for a second opinion. The protests by the self-appointed culture police fizzled out as they often do.

Asha Parekh. Courtesy Asha Parekh The Hit Girl/Om Books International.
Asha Parekh. Courtesy Asha Parekh The Hit Girl/Om Books International.

Next Zakhm (1998) sparked a face-off with Mukesh and Mahesh Bhatt. Members of the censorship committees felt it should be screened for senior police officers as a cautionary measure. The depiction of the people who set off communal riots could have caused a backlash. Mukesh Bhatt said he would take the matter to New Delhi to seek the intervention of L.K. Advani, the then Minister of Home Affairs. Moreover Mahesh Bhatt accompanied by Tanuja Chandra and others, raised abusive slogans outside the office. Some of these abuses were aimed at me personally.

After much ado, the Bhatts agreed to the Board’s decision. Visuals indicating the party affiliations of the rioters were blurred, minor cuts were imposed and Zakhm was released. The slogans raised by Mahesh did disturb me but I would like to think I emerged stronger from the personal attack. I was doing my job. I was certainly not taking an individual, arbitrary stand for or against Zakhm.

Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) too, was a storm in a tea cup. It was certified ‘A’ for ‘Adults Only’ with a few cuts by the examining and revising committees. Absolutely agitated he insisted on a ‘U’ certificate for universal exhibition. So what if it had been given an ‘R’ (restricted) certificate in the UK where it was produced? Shekhar sought the support of the media to browbeat the censors, editorials were written. Some columns and TV channels described me as a ‘dictator’ and ‘Hitler’. Shekhar took the case to the appellate tribunal where it was cleared with an ‘UA’ certificate by its chairman Justice Lentin. End of story.

Asha Parekh in a dance sequence in Sajan (1969). Courtesy Asha Parekh The Hit Girl/Om Books International.
Asha Parekh in a dance sequence in Sajan (1969). Courtesy Asha Parekh The Hit Girl/Om Books International.

Reasoning works. China Gate (1998) could have caused a stir for its scene showing a dog urinating on an army man’s trousers as well as the titillating close-ups of Urmila Matondkar during the item number ‘Chhamma Chhamma Baaje Re’. The examining committee had raised valid objections. The film’s director Raj Kumar Santoshi, believe it or not, agreed with them without so much as an argument. And believe it or not again, the censors agreed to pass a provocative dance move by American dancers in Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999) when Randhir and Rishi Kapoor argued logically for its retention.

Saawan Kumar Tak’s Mother ’98 (1999) was an ordeal. One of its songs, ‘Biwi Cheez Hai Sajawat Ki’ (A wife is a decorative object), picturised on Rekha was found to be offensive. I agreed with the members of the committees, it was insulting to women and our view was supported by the higher-ups in the Central Government. We were told to stick to the decision of deleting the song in its entirety.

Mr Tak lashed out against the censors in interviews. On being asked by journalists for my reactions to his nasty remarks, I replied right back without mincing any words. I should not have, I should have ignored Mr Tak who had raised a hue and cry in vain. The song was deleted.

Odd cases would show up, like two women film producers who came over to the office and started weeping copiously. They had mortgaged their house to produce a sex-and-horror film packed with frontal nudity and pornographic love-making scenes. There was no way the film could be passed unless it was cut drastically. The producers withdrew their application for censorship.

Asha Parekh. Courtesy Asha Parekh The Hit Girl/Om Books International.
Asha Parekh. Courtesy Asha Parekh The Hit Girl/Om Books International.

In the case of the Abbas-Mustan directed Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (2001), the Ministry had called asking for the Chairperson to view the film personally. The producer was not making the print available. Hence a legal notice was pasted on the door of his office. Consequently a screening was arranged at a preview theatre. After the screening, several double meaning dialogue spoken for the film’s comedy track by Johnny Lever and Laxmikant Berde were deleted. Reportedly the film was financed by underworld elements and producer Bharat Shah. The CBI had seized several prints of the film up for release. Those charges did not fall within the purview of the Censor Board. Subsequently the film was released with cuts and the law took its own course about its financing.

Flare-ups could be often handled tactfully. Animal welfare activists were not willing to go with the visual of the taped ears of a goat in John Matthew Matthan’s Sarfarosh (1999) or with the shot of a chinkara hunt in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001). Maneka Gandhi was spoken to in New Delhi over the phone about Sarfarosh, and about Lagaan when she was in Mumbai for a brief visit. She saw things from the filmmaker’s perspective and in both the films, the shots were retained.

The avowed aim on my part was to censor only when it was essential in terms of excessive vulgarity and violence, degradation of women and abusive words used out of context. I had to strike a balance between carrying out the responsibilities as stated in the censorship guidelines and the filmmaker’s right to freedom of expression. I was neither radical nor a dictator, far from it. As with the creative community the censors have to remain within boundaries.

We get the cinema and the censorship we deserve, it is maintained. And this is visible on every street and corner of our cities. Not only on the screen but down the years, posters and cinema hoardings scream out loud about what to expect. The other day I was driving past the Imperial Cinema of Mumbai, where Meri Surat Teri Ankhen was premiered once upon a time. The films’ hoardings displayed for all to see were so lurid that I could not help but conclude: Salacious material easily accessible on the Internet or not, there is still a fringe audience for cheap thrills on the big screen.

Excerpted with permission from Asha Parekh The Hit Girl, Om Books International.

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