Indian Censor Decisions Shift From Erratic to Surreal and Political

The ongoing saga of India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) making bizarre censorship decisions continued this week with rulings on the films “An Insignificant Man” and “Jab Harry Met Sejal.”

Directed by popular Bollywood filmmaker Imtiaz Ali, romantic drama “Jab Harry Met Sejal” stars Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma and is due an August 4 release. CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani objected to the word “intercourse” used in one of the film’s promos and wanted it removed on the grounds that it was unsuitable for 12-year-olds.

Nihalani initially said that the word could stay if 100,000 people voted to keep it in. Now, he has added a few provisos. The votes have to be from married people aged 36 and above, as they are likely to have 12-year-old children.

Khan has told the Indian media that if the CBFC see the word in the context of the whole film they would understand that the usage is appropriate. “We are yet to send the film to the censors and they should watch the whole film to decide,” Khan said.

The case of Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s documentary “An Insignificant Man” is no less surreal and has political ramifications. The film charts the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of political outfit Aam Admi Party that won 67 out of 70 seats in the 2015 Delhi legislative assembly elections, reducing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s tally to just three. The BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, rules India.

The film premiered at Toronto in 2016 and has had considerable festival play since, including London, Sydney and Moscow. The producers applied for certification in February for an India release and were met with a series of delays.

“In its final verdict against our film, the censor board has asked us to acquire written permissions from top politicians in India before clearing our film for public release,” said Shukla. “These politicians include the current Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi. The justification stated is that because we are using public speeches of these leaders, we are obliged to take their consent before using their speeches in our film. This is a completely illegal and unethical demand. Public speeches are the only accessible medium for citizens to engage with politicians whose actions affect our lives daily. Documentarians across the world use footage from public speeches of politicians to contextualize their films and engage in critical reflection on their respective societies.”

“It’s akin to asking Michael Moore to get permissions from George W. Bush before clearing “Fahrenheit 9/11” for public release,” said Ranka.

The CBFC has also asked the producers to bleep out the names of the BJP and Congress Party, the main opposition party in India.

The producers have filed an appeal against the decision. Meanwhile, the International Documentary Association has begun a campaign to clear the film.

Kamal Swaroop’s 2014 documentary “The Battle of Banaras” that charts the electoral battle between Modi and Kejriwal in the Varanasi constituency in the general elections of 2014 remains banned in India.

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