Some will tell you it was Newton, other will remind you of A Death in the Gunj; there was also Bareilly ki Barfi, Anaarkali of Aarah, Haraamkhor, and Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, but the two films that will mark this year for me are: Lipstick Under My Burkha and Padmavati. The first one we got to see after a protracted struggle with the censors; the second one seems to have gone into a limbo, with little hope of ever emerging from it. Lipstick Under My Burkha, directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, was initially disallowed from releasing in January this year, after the censor board found: "There are contagious sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society." The makers of the film appealed against this verdict to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, which recommended a few cuts — the makers had already volunteered to make 16 cuts — and asked the censor board to give it an "A" certificate. Released in end-July, the film performed strongly at the box office: Earning nearly Rs 26 crore, with a budget of only about Rs 6 crore. Strong performances by actresses Ratna Pathak, Konkona Sen Sharma, Plabita Borthakur, and Aahana Kumra – who portrayed the four protagonists – and a lean, humorous narrative earned it applause from the audience and critics. While there was some criticism for not pushing the envelope enough, it did win the Oxfam Award for Best Film on Gender Equality at the Mumbai Film Festival. In an earlier column ("The heart of India", 28 July 2017), I had argued that Lipstick Under My Burkha had earned the ire of the censor board, then chaired by Pahlaj Nihalani, not because of its depiction of women's sexuality. Anyhow, what it showed of women's desire or its appeal for gender equality was nothing we had not seen on screen before. On the contrary, I had argued, that its depiction of a harmonious social fabric — where Hindus and Muslims live as tenants in the same house and take part in each other's festivals — had not gone down well with the powers that be. The censor board had made no mention of this in its report, so this can only be conjecture, but the real transgressive power of the film was in the portrayal of the nonchalant intermingling of people from different communities, which is becoming rarer. Soon after, Nihalani, too, found himself out of the censor board. Reports emerged of his supercilious behaviour and the straw that broke the back of the camel was probably Madhur Bhandarkar's Indu Sarkar.
According to some reports, a bureaucratic Nihalani made National Award-winning Bhandarkar wait for hours before meeting him to discuss the feature film set during the Emergency. In August, Nihalani was replaced by lyricist Prasoon Joshi, with everyone hoping that the process of film certification in the country would become a more sensible one.All such hopes, however, were belied with the fiasco around Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati, which was scheduled to release in December. The events are too recent for me to offer to refresh your memories. Even before the censor board could take a call on the fictional costume drama, some sections of the Rajput community in Rajasthan took umbrage over what they suspected to be a pejorative depiction of their culture. Had they watched the film? No! Did it matter that it was based on a fictional account rather than factual history? Not in the least. Why should such things even matter when one can leverage residual anger into a fuel for one's political aspirations? The censor board, too, found a bureaucratic solution to postpone the release of the film and deny it a certificate: It said the filmmakers had not filled in the forms correctly. As political leaders, including chief ministers, jumped into the fray, banning it from being released in their states, citing security concerns, and others threatening to kill or maim Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh or Bhansali, a committee of historians, parliamentarians and representatives of Rajputs has been formed to clear the film. Even if we were to ignore the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression that such a social trial entails, does this not also undermine the powers of the censor board, which is a constitutional body? Does anyone even care?