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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: Is the censor board going overboard?

The Indian film industry has survived more than a hundred years of state neglect and is now a global force. The moral policing of the CBFC could end up destroying this symbol of India's soft power

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar 

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar

Does Indian cinema have soft power? And is the new chief of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) messing with that?

Here are some facts before we answer these questions.

India is a free, liberal market for the creation and exhibition of films. It has no quotas or restrictions like, say, China which allows the import of only 34 foreign films a year. With such a small quota, Hollywood still manages to get half of the Chinese box office. In India, on the other hand, Hollywood's share of box-office revenues has remained between 5-8 per cent for more than a decade. The Rs 14,000-crore Indian film industry is a creatively vibrant, prolific and financially healthy one. This explains why every one of the major global studios is producing local films in India.

The influence of Indian cinema, however, goes beyond its 10,000-odd cinema screens. More than 16 per cent of all TV viewing comes from films. Indian advertisements are dominated by film stars. Many of the country's biggest creative names in advertising - Prasoon Joshi, R Balki, for instance - double as film-makers, lyricists or scriptwriters. More than three-fourths of the music sold in India is from films. Almost all the programming on radio is film music.

Films, the ones Indians make for themselves and in their cultural context, dominate the cultural, social and even political sphere at times. Some of the longest-running chief ministers have been popular stars.

For a 100-year-plus industry, which had no access to institutional financing or state support, to hold on to its own against Hollywood films speaks volumes about its soft power. Indians voted for Indian films with their wallets when they were relatively poor and now when they are relatively well-off. This is the biggest mark of its soft power. The only other country that stands up with a robust, locally plugged industry is South Korea. And outside India, the films act as a powerful magnet, especially in countries with cultural affinity - in West Asia, south-east Asia, Mediterranean markets and even large chunks of Europe. They are a good if not very lucrative export to have.

To answer the questions that were posed in the beginning then - yes, Indian cinema has soft power. And even if it did not have soft power, no one, the CBFC or the ministry, should be allowed to mess with that.

Going by media reports earlier this week, a delegation led by Mahesh Bhatt and others from the film industry appealed to the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting about the difficulties of working with an increasing number of restrictions on what films can or cannot do. The banning of 28 cuss words, of the use of words such as "Bombay" and "lesbian", are among some of the changes that Pahlaj Nihalani, the new CBFC chief who took over in January, has made. Many films are being are being personally cleared by him, say reports.

The CBFC's job is to 'certify' films as fit for viewing by the audience. It is not a censor board or the guardian of India's morality. There are too many people wanting to take on that mantle. Paresh Mokashi's critically acclaimed Elizabeth Ekadashi (Marathi, 2014) got slammed for using a British Queen's name along with an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar. Barbers thought the term 'barber' was derogatory, so 'Billu Barber' became Billu (2009). Dhobi Ghat (2011) had dhobis or washermen in Mumbai up in arms. The list is endless.

Sure, there are good films and bad films but let the audience decide that. By putting restrictions on what film-makers can or cannot do, the CBFC takes away from the wonderful ability of the Indian industry to connect with its audience. Largely, Indian films are getting better at telling Indian stories in a language and context that Indians want to hear them in. And they touch every aspect of the lives, dreams, problems and miseries of Indians. Whether it is Bobby from the early seventies to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro in the mid-eighties to the more recent Lage Raho Munna Bhai or 3 Idiots and Kai Po Che, our film-makers, whether they are Indian or American, know what Indians like and don't like; not the CBFC.

Twitter: @vanitakohlik
Large parts of this column are extracted from a paper, 'The Soft Power of Indian Cinema', the columnist presented at the University of Leeds in the UK last year

First Published: Tue, March 17 2015. 21:44 IST