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Dibakar Banerjee: ‘All of us turn into hustlers when we go and present our films to the censor board’

Dibakar Banerjee on our systemic censorship problems and why the CBFC is just a convenient punching bag

Dibakar Banerjee. Photo: Hindustan Times
Dibakar Banerjee. Photo: Hindustan Times

My own experiences with censorship have led me to believe that the censor board is more the symptom than the problem, because I think everyone has had incidents where you’re trying to express something and there is a gatekeeper who doesn’t let you. When you and I speak, I say something to you, you hear me out and that’s it. But imagine if there was a third person whom I have to tell beforehand what I’m planning to tell you, and he says that you aren’t ready to hear this and I think you should tell this to him instead. At the core, it’s a lot of us making films and somebody’s sitting across the table saying, “I don’t think this is appropriate."

The reasons (for censorship), according to the Cinematograph Act, are national security, national integrity, moral decency—terms open to wide interpretation. And I must speak to the third person before I speak to you. So I’m always trying to figure out in my head how to speak to the person between us and get it past him to you. So I start trying to be smart, slipping things under the carpet, using code that you’ll understand. Already I’m subverted. I’m already being a bit of a hustler.

All of us turn into hustlers when we go and present our films to the censor board. It depends on the people examining your film as to how pleasant that experience is. Over the seven films I’ve made, 70-80% of my experience has been pleasant, whereas 20-30% has been bizarre. For example, while making Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), I was told not to show that the boy in the first story, who’s wooing the girl, is a Dalit, because he’s lynched and beheaded. When I said (to the censors), he’s from a low caste, that’s why he’s killed, the board’s CEO asked me, tomorrow if there’s unrest, buses are burnt and lives are lost, will you take responsibility? I had nothing to say, because suddenly the safety of people and public property rested on my film.

A still from ‘Titli’.

You’re faced with a moral choice—what if your film takes a life? There is no mention of the fact, what if the state abdicates its duty to protect citizens and protect its citizens’ right of expression? So it’s an interesting reversal of onus to which most of us have to cave in. If I made Love Sex Aur Dhokha today, I would have had to do the same thing. I would have taken the chance that a lot of people would understand why he’s being killed.

My other experience was with a film I was producing, Kanu Behl’s Titli (2015)—which had cuss words and was being made for an adult audience. It was not supposed to set the box office on fire, but it was hailed at festivals over the world. We were sent to meet the chairperson. He sat down and said he was going to advise us on how to make great films and protect our careers because he liked us. He said we had to take all the cuss words out. It became bargaining. It had nothing to do with the audience’s sensibilities—it was that someone, overzealous and politically ambitious, had been placed there to cut and excise. And if you don’t do that, you might be accused of dereliction of duty.

You might define your mandate as following the Cinematograph Act, but it is so vague. For instance, what is moral decency? Since it’s morally indecent to rape someone, we can never show the moral indecency of the act on film. But since it isn’t indecent to dance on stage, you can titillate the audience to whatever extent you want to.

When you take the Cinematograph Act and the absolute ruinous taxation on the theatrical film system, and if you compound this with high ticket prices and not having enough screens and the huge fees that the stars charge because there’s no content, it makes it very difficult to earn money on a feature film. Only the broadest and biggest star-driven extravaganzas make any money. Therefore, we are forced to make films which do not question, do not provoke, that do not risk a battle at the censors —except a few.

I have always made films keeping the censor in mind. We have to do it, because we have to exist and live.

There is no point blaming the censor board. They are there because they have been appointed by the state. They have been given a mandate which can be interpreted in a number of ways. Unless the film community and the audience take the Cinematograph Act head on, we will always be at the mercy of the interpreters and manipulators of a vague, statist act.

A poster for ‘Love Sex Aur Dhokha’.

Our Cinematograph Act is a bastard child of the British Cinematograph Act. Even in 1952, once we had independence and our own Constitution, we did not change the law—because the state wanted it to be so. The state still sees the Indian masses as paternalistically as the British colonial state did. Just the language has changed. It’s a paranoid state that is trying to mind-control its citizens some way or the other.

The Cinematograph Act has to be amended, and that takes political will. And the fact is that the film industry itself is not united. We’ve been standing by, letting the state do its business unchecked. So we can’t cry foul now.

There’s a vicious circle: the lack of options for the audience; the state of the audience, with our huge literacy issues; the need for the film-maker to produce a film that immediately makes money in four days; and the carpet-bombing of cinemas with one big-budget film, which stubs out individual voices. The industry doesn’t raise a voice against any form of suppression. If all the Bollywood personalities connected to politics get together and say we will not stand for this, it will happen. At a bigger level, Bollywood doesn’t care.

As told to Uday Bhatia

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