The place is abuzz today. Just a step or two down a slope from a sea-facing building on Mumbai’s Walkeshwar, quite grandly called the White House, you can find the headquarters of the Central Board of Film Certification.
It’s quite a gloomy, government-style house of cards – complete with aluminium shutters. Enter Prasoon Joshi, the 47-year-old ad pundit, poet, film lyricist and writer. Exit the 60-ish Pahlaj Nihalani (age unconfirmed) who has been shown the door within two years and some five months of a tenure, which is usually assigned for at least five years by the ruling party at the centre.
Get the math. Here’s BJP’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s first clear-as-day confession that they made a terrible mistake in selecting the chief to occupy the hot seat. Students of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, had striked against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman, but dropping him would have meant a loss of face.
Be that as it may, the lately-appointed I&B minister, Smriti Irani, does merit a round of spontaneous applause for giving the heave-ho to Nihalani, whose relentless draconian decisions were first seen as quixotic and then as psychotic.
Clearly, Nihalani was trying to score brownie points with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Emboldened by unchecked enthusiasm, he released a short film glorifying the PM. The embarrassing short featured three actors, singing and dancing away as latter day versions of Amar, Akbar, Anthony. Vis-a-vis the uncalled for intervention in many films and documentaries, Nihalani came to be known as the once congenial-film-producer-turned-overnight-butcher.
This much you know already. And you may be pubbed into the rumours which would circulate periodically: Actor-director Amol Palekar and filmmakers Prakash Jha, Madhur Bhandarkar and Chandraprakash Dwivedi were on the ministry’s wish-list to replace Nihalani. The rumours had thickened so fast and furiously at one point. When they didn’t come true, kilos of laddoos and barfi were distributed to celebrate the status quo by the staffers at the Walkeshwar office.
Bollywood heavyweight names, ever-ready for a dial-a-quote, have welcomed the take-over by Joshi, albeit with caution.
Prasoon Joshi haazir ho! Great. But what can he do with the outmoded charter of film censorship guidelines?
What can he do with the entrenched policies? Or with the key advisory panel of individuals drawn from various fields, who sit on judgement about what and why to delete, reduce, or even ban films? Will filmmakers still continue to fear that their products will be submitted like lambs are for slaughter?
In the event, the task before Prasoon Joshi, the estimable achiever in the realms of advertising and show business, is a thankless and complicated one. The more-than-obvious reasons are:
- Once a copywriter, now the CEO of the McKann World group and chairman of its subsidiary, Asia Pacific, he is at the peak of his advertising career. Moreover, he’s double-tasking with film writing. Ram Madhvani’s web series Bodhidharma: Master of Shaolin and the Kangana Ranaut film Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi feature among his workloads. Film censorship is an additional portfolio, which will have to be undertaken part-time and on an honorary basis at that. At most, the chairperson is allocated a car for transport and a negligible stipend.
Question: How will he time-manage to clean up the censor office’s widely-acknowledged Augean stables?
- He was a member of the film censorship review committee, under the leadership of Shyam Benegal, set up by the BJP. Two of the reforms recommended were that the censors’ job is not to cut but to certify films, and that an extra category of certification — apart from U, UA and UA — should be introduced for children in their teenage years.
Question: When will these suggestions be tabled and implemented, if at all?
- Regional officers of the CBFC, spread through Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Guwahati, Cuttack, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Thiruvanthapuram, are in fact the vital executors. They note the cuts demanded by the examining and revising committees. These notations according to my own personal experience, as a short-lived member of the advisory panel, frequently go through the cracks. Protests are coldly ignored.
Question: How will the behind-the-scenes tactics be brought under control?
- The composition of the examining committees can be rigged. A regional officer, in complicity with a filmmaker, can call for members who are known to be ‘lenient’ and ‘liberal’. Or if a filmmaker has no power to influence, the members called can be ‘extra-strict’ and ‘rigid’.
Question: How to fix this polarisation or the allegations of corruption within the system?
- It’s no secret that political patronage is more than apparent in the constitution of the panels as well as that of the Board, whatever the colour or the ideology of the ruling party may be. Political favourites are on board, and in a glaring case, there was this secretary of a superstar, who found himself on the advisory board. Question: Self-evident.
- One of the most enlightened chairpersons of the CBFC was none other than the stalwart filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee (1981-82), who strived to bring about a method in the madness. He quit within one-and-a-half year since he couldn’t quite handle the responsibility.
Question: Is Prasoon Joshi made of sterner stuff?
That comparison with Hrishikesh Mukherjee could be construed as unfair and presumptuous perhaps. I have met Prasoon Joshi a couple of times. On one occasion, it was for one of those round-ups of the best Bollywood films and performances for a TV channel. He spoke little and diplomatically (my take). He is courtesy personified in his “Hellos” and “How are yous.”
His personality is that of the quintessential Mr Nice Guy, sparking my last question: Can a Nice Guy bring about a radical change in the Film Censorship Establishment?
Good luck to Mr Joshi, to filmmakers and to us, the audience. We need it.
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter.)
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