Central Board of Film Certification chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani has issued his latest and by no means his final directive: actors can henceforth not drink or smoke on the screen. This is only the latest in a long line of diktats conjured up by the producer and distributor to purify Indian cinema for the sake of national interest.
He became the board’s chairperson on January 19, 2015, reportedly as a reward for having directed the Har Har Modi video ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Soon after taking over the censor board from Leela Samson, Nihalani made his political leanings clear when he told NDTV that he is proud to be a “BJP person” and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is his “action hero.” Nihalani wished the prime minister on his birthday on Twitter that year calling him his “action hero” yet again.
In 2016, Nihalani congratulated his action hero one more time for the attacks conducted by the Indian Army in response to the Uri attacks of September.
The CBFC chief’s adulation for Modi reached new heights at the time of demonetisation. Nihalani credited Modi’s “5.6lb Brain for such a Masterstroke”. He also added that Modi’s move affirmed that “Gujjus” do “rock”.
The censor board’s tilt towards increased conservatism began a month after Nihalani took charge. The board sent to its regional offices a list of supposedly objectionable words that were to be excised from films. Besides a whole slate of English and Hindi abuses, the list also included “Bombay”. Filmmakers, including censor board member Ashoke Pandit, opposed the list vehemently and in August, the list was withdrawn after several CBFC members voted against it. However, the censor board has been regularly bleeping out all kinds of words from movies across languages ever since.
An early rebellion within the censor board was successfully quashed. In March 2015, Pandit and fellow censor board member Chandraprakash Dwivedi spoke out against Nihalani. While Dwivedi wrote a letter to Nihalani personally alleging that the board’s decisions were being ignored by him, Pandit vented his frustration in a Facebook post. He called Nihalani a “tyrant” and accused him of behaving like an “anarchic monarch” who treated his office like a “fiefdom.” “Nihalani’s diktats are supported neither by logic nor law, nor does he appreciate the intelligence of the film-maker and the audience,” Pandit wrote and cited NH10’s example as a film botched by Nihalani’s idiosyncratic directives.
NH10’s release was postponed by a week because Nihalani wouldn’t issue an adults only certificate until its makers made a significant number of cuts. By now, Nihalani had earned a reputation for being scissor-happy. The erotic Hollywood film Fifty Shades of Grey was denied an Indian release despite 70 cuts. Following NH10, the board refused to certify Raj Amit Kumar’s Unfreedom because of its depiction of a lesbian relationship and communal tensions and got the word “lesbian” muted in Dum Laga Ke Haisha.
In August, the censor board refused to clear Kamal Swaroop’s Battle of Banaras based on the electoral battle between Narendra Modi and Aam Aadmi Party Leader Arvind Kejriwal in Varanasi ahead of the 2014 general elections. In November, Nihalani got kissing scenes in the James Bond film Spectre trimmed by 33 seconds. In an interview, when Nihalani was asked about why the duration of a kiss mattered, he replied, “This means you want to do sex in your house with your door open. And show to people the way you are doing sex.”
In February 2016, Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, which centered around homosexuality, was granted a release after a bunch of cuts. Its trailer got an A certificate, which hampered its promotional campaign since an A-rated movie can be screened only before another A-rated film in cinemas.
But the censor board’s most highly publicised assault on the freedom of expression happened ahead of the release of Udta Punjab in June. The board recommended 89 cuts at 13 points, including the removal of the word “Punjab.” The Bombay High Court struck down the CBFC’s decision and the film was passed with just a single cut and an adult certificate.
In 2017, the coming of age drama Haraamkhor, in which a teenager has an affair with her teacher, was finally released only after the makers appealed to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal.
The tribunal, which is the highest body of appeal within CBFC, also came to the rescue of Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha. The examining committee refused to certify the film initially because it was “lady oriented” and depicted a “fantasy above life”.
Soon after, CBFC refused to clear a trailer of the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Jab Harry Met Sejal for television audiences because it featured the word “intercourse”. Nihalani, in an interview, added that he would pass the trailer if he got one lakh votes from Indian audiences, specifically from married people who are above 36 years of age.
Indian films that get screened in foreign festivals without a CBFC certificate also rubbed Nihalani the wrong way. Nihalani criticised filmmakers for sneaking their films into festivals in “exotic locations” and warned that he would be taking the “strictest action” against such directors.
Even as Nihalani’s methods continued to receive harsh criticism, he got more combative. In the month of his appointment to the chairperson’s post, Nihalani had argued that equal censorship laws should be applied to content across cinema halls, television and the internet, citing Sunny Leone’s example. He expressed concern that while her films might be censored, her presence on the internet was not. “How can there be tolerance for all this? What will the new generation learn?” he asked.
The very next month, Nihalani criticised ex-CBFC chairperson Sharmila Tagore for clearing her son Saif Ali Khan’s film Omkara (2006) for release. “The board cleared it [Omkara] on her [Sharmila Tagore] pressure which set the trend and release of films like Gangs of Wasseypur happened,” Nihalani lamented. In November that year, Nihalani announced that he would make a documentary on the students of Film and Television Institute of India wherein he would expose the “anti nationals.” This development was a result of protests by FTII students who were unhappy with the appointment of Bharatiya Janata Party member Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chairperson. In that month, Nihalani made a second video, Mera Desh Hai Mahaan, cheerleading for Modi once again.
“People are clapping in the cinema halls after watching the video but some people have criticised it,” Nihalani claimed. “They are creating noise because they don’t want anything good here.”
During the controversy surrounding Udta Punjab’s release in 2016, Nihalani alleged that producer Anurag Kashyap had taken a bribe from the Aam Aadmi Party to show Punjab in “bad light” in Udta Punjab. After Kashyap said that Nihalani is a chamcha (acolyte) of Modi, the CBFC chief embraced the label and added, “Should I be a chamcha of the Italian Prime Minister instead?”
Later in January, Nihalani took to Twitter to suggest that Anurag Kashyap is “haraamkhor”, which was also the title of the film Kashyap produced.
Nihalani has openly played favourites and aired his biases through his interviews and Twitter account. He doesn’t hesitate from abusing filmmakers even though he is supposed to be non-partisan, and favours films deemed as promoting the government’s projects and values.
He accused Aligarh director Hansal Mehta of staging a “cheap publicity stunt” after the director expressed his anger over the trailer being given an Adult certificate. In an interview in January this year, Nihalani compared “Indian culture” to “heritage property” such as the “Red Fort” which the government, by duty, should protect through bodies like the CBFC. He added that the government defines what is “Indian culture”.
One Bollywood star who embodies “Indian culture” is Akshay Kumar, according to Nihalani. While praising Kumar’s blockbuster Airlift (2016), Nihalani called him the “ambassador of Indian culture”. This year, he wished him the best for his film Jolly LLB 2 with the hashtag #NewAkkiClub. Last month, he also proposed that Toilet: Ek Prem Katha should be declared tax-free since it promotes the Swachh Bharat programme.
It’s not always easy to predict Nihalani’s favourites. They include Tiger Shroff’s superhero film A Flying Jatt, which he claimed would remind audiences of the devotional Jai Santoshi Maa (1975). (The movie tanked badly.)
Nihalani praised the Sunny Deol starrer Ghayal: Once Again (2016) for bringing back “Sanskar, Emotions, Patriotism, Action!” However, the Sunny Deol starrer Mohalla Assi, directed by Nihalani’s opponent Chandraprakash Dwivedi and set in Varanasi, has been denied a certificate by CBFC for its use of profanity.
Nihalani also declared his love for Salman Khan’s Sultan (2016) and called Khan a “shining icon of Indian cinema” for his films “exhibit our deep rooted culture.” This year, Sridevi’s Mom won Nihalani’s heart and he called it an iconic “#MotherIndia in today’s time”.
The latest movie that he has praised, and which has been certified with a clean U, is the July 27 release Mubarakan. Clearly, Nihalani loathes many films, but there at least some that he likes.