In 2001, Dev Anand took on the Central Board of Film Certification, and we are still reeling from the effort.
Censor, which has been written, directed and produced by Anand, is the story of a celebrated filmmaker whose latest labour of love, titled Aanewala Kal, faces trouble in the form of suggested cuts and an adult certificate. Vikramjeet, better known by the youthful nickname Vicky, is outraged that the censor officials cannot comprehend the debates over inter-generational conflict tackled by his movie.
Vicky has also been informed by Hollywood actress Margaret Truman (Archana Puran Singh), who is not to be confused with the singer of the same name, that Aanewala Kal is worthy of qualifying as India’s entry as the best foreign language production at the Film Awards. Make no mistake: the reference here is quite clearly to the Oscars.
The censor board’s regional officer (Rekha) is unmoved by Vicky’s protests. Some of her examiners have an axe to grind with Vicky, including a writer (Jackie Shroff) and an actress (Mamta Kulkarni) who were rejected by Vicky and a conservative gent (Amrish Puri) who hates the filmmaker for trying to cast his daughter in his movie.
Vicky puts up a spirited fight. He takes his film to the Information and Broadcasting minister (Shivaji Satam), who, unfortunately, does not only concur with the certification, but also orders further cuts.
Vicky soldiers on. He smuggles a print of Aanewala Kal to Hollywood, where Margaret Truman enters it as India’s entry in the foreign language film category. Meanwhile, Vicky goes to court to continue his battle, where, before the judge (Shammi Kapoor), he makes a passionate plea for the right to the freedom of expression.
Vicky wins the award in Hollywood, of course – not one, but two (for best director). Back home, his achievements move the judge to return a verdict in his favour. Vicky becomes a national hero for having given India an honour it has been eyeing forever.
Suffused with tackiness and egregious writing and featuring Anand in peak unwitting self-caricature mode, Censor has no redeeming qualities except for one. Vicky’s courtoom defence of his right to make a movie the way he wants to is a rare instance of a filmmaker sticking out his neck for his tribe.
While arguing with Amrish Puri’s character, Vicky demolishes his opponent’s righteousness and hypocrisy. Vicky easily wins the argument over why Aanewala Kal has a bikini-clad character in a swimming pool, but his more skillful feints revolve around the complex question of a filmmaker’s right to pursue his vision.
When accused of not being touch with conventional morality, Vicky replies, I am as much a part of the same social fabric as the rest of you. Vulgarity is in the mind, he points out, and young audiences do not care for the ossified values of the previous generation. If 18-year Indians can vote, they have every right to watch movies with sensual scenes, he says. Can the movies be blamed for violence? He has a counter-question: should cinema be blamed for terrorist attacks and the violence resulting from the Partition?
Vicky’s trump card when told that the I&B minister wants to limit his film’s reach: a political party does not represent the desire of all Indians to watch what they please.
Many of the arguments in the movie apply to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s beleaguered Padmavati, which is now at the mercy of the censor board and a parliamentary panel that is debating its depiction of fourteenth-century folklore. The criticism levelled at Vicky for smuggling out his film to America before it has been censored in India also holds true for Padmavati’s producers, who have been pilloried for screening the historical for television anchors and planning an international release.
If the distributors of Padmavati decide to release the film in foreign markets without waiting for domestic certification, they might want to quote Vicky’s views on the subject: the Indian censor board’s jurisdiction does not extend beyond the country’s borders.
Dev Anand made a bunch of bizarre films in his lifetime on whatever caught his fancy. Censor remains a singular attempt to demystify the process of certification and criticise the censor board’s overwhelming powers and paternalistic attitudes towards filmmakers. Only Dev Anand could have dreamt it up, and only he could have flubbed it so badly.