‘Disgusting and revolting and obscene’: ‘Bandit Queen’ and the censors
Shehar Kapur's path-breaking film, 'Bandit Queen', went through all kinds of checks, from the CBFC's examining committee to the Supreme Court, before its release
Bandit Queen premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1994 to wide critical acclaim. Variety called it “gripping". The Economist said it would change Indian cinema forever. Evening Standard, in its page-long review, called it “truly radical"—“angry, shocking, potentially inflammatory"—helping “Indian cinema come of age". But a Hollywood Reporter festival round-up piece pointed to the anxieties accompanying the acclaim. “Whatever the film’s reception in Cannes," it said, “the brutal realism is certain to cause huge problems in both the subcontinent and Western territories...."
The film’s producer, Bobby Bedi, wasn’t surprised. “We knew it would have trouble," he says over the phone. “But we weren’t expecting the kind of trouble it got." The makers submitted the film to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) on 17 August 1994. The examining committee—comprising an examining officer and four members of the advisory panel—saw it, raised objections, and referred it to the revising committee. On 19 July 1995, the revising committee—headed by a chairman, with not more than nine members of the censor board and advisory panel—recommended an A certificate, subject to cuts and modifications. The revising committee, clamping down heavily on cuss words, rape sequences and frontal nudity, “added more than 100 cuts", says Bedi.
But Bandit Queen’s director, Shekhar Kapur, thought the CBFC had seen his film in a “callous and careless way", and didn’t want to negotiate or accept the cuts. Neither did Bedi. They applied to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), the next recourse in the censorship process, challenging the revising committee’s decision. The FCAT—presided over by a retired judge of the Bombay high court, Lentin J., and three members (all women—Sara Mohammad, Sarayu V. Doshi, and Reena Kumari)—stated that the expletives were “not intended to be taken literally", as they reflected the nuances of the language spoken in the villages of Chambal ravines. The censor board also wanted to delete a scene that showed a policeman hitting Phoolan Devi with the butt of a gun. The FCAT said that deleting the scene would “negate the very impact of the film", which depicted the “maltreatment and cruelty" suffered by Phoolan Devi and her motivation for taking revenge.
The revising committee had demanded that 70% of the scene of Phoolan Devi torturing her husband be cut. The FCAT believed it was a “powerful scene", demonstrating “Devi’s pent-up anger, emotions, and revulsion", whose reduction “would negate its impact". The revising committee had asked for another scene, where Phoolan Devi is paraded naked in the village, to be cut heavily. The FCAT asserted that it was “an integral part of the story", one that intended to “create revulsion in the minds of the average audience towards the tormentors and oppressors of women. To delete or even to reduce these climactic visuals," it said, “would be a sacrilege."
The FCAT’s unanimous decision overruled the revising committee’s orders, and gave the film an A certificate. At the hearing, recalls Bedi, Justice Lentin suggested the censor board representative “take a trip to Khajuraho", joking that it was unlikely the Indian government would send him to Rome, to “understand the difference between nakedness, nudity, and obscenity".
Bandit Queen released in theatres a few months later, on 25 January 1996, after an year-long censorship battle. But that relief was short-lived. Two days later, Om Pal Singh Hoon, a Hindu Gujjar, filed a writ petition in the Delhi high court, seeking to quash the film’s censor certificate and restrain exhibition in the country. Phoolan Devi’s portrayal, said Hoon, was “abhorrent and unconscionable and a slur on the womanhood of India". He felt that the rape scene, by a character called Babu Gujjar, lowered the reputation of the Gujjar community, discriminating against him and violating several articles of the Constitution.
The Delhi high court judge allowed the writ petition, directing the CBFC to re-examine the film’s censor certificate. The division bench, approached by the makers of Bandit Queen, held the same view, calling the frontal nudity scene “indecent" under Section 5 (B) of the Cinematograph Act and Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. The bench also objected to the rape scene involving Babu Gujjar, estimating (quite bizarrely) with a stopwatch, that it ran for about 20 seconds, and found it, along with other expletives and scenes in the film, to be disgusting and revolting and obscene.
The makers challenged the order in the Supreme Court. The judgement, delivered on 1 May 1996, made some crucial points. It emphasized the importance of watching a scene in the context of the film (“Bandit Queen tells a powerful human story and to that story the scene of Phoolan Devi’s enforced naked portrayal is central"), cautioned against applying a blanket standard (“nakedness does not always arouse the baser instinct"), and allowed a crucial film-making liberty (“a film that carries the message that the social evil is evil cannot be made impermissible on the ground that it depicts the social evil"). The Supreme Court upheld FCAT’s judgement, granting Bandit Queen its eventual freedom. “It remains a landmark judgement in terms of censorship even today," says Bedi. “If I had made the film today, I would have no hopes of getting the same judgement."
But that judgement, expected to mark a new chapter in Indian film censorship, has been reduced to a mere footnote, occasionally invoked in conversations—and FCAT and court judgements—when a big, controversial film is facing the censor’s scissors. Though two decades have passed, the CBFC has shown little willingness to change. Its blinkered, paternalistic, often patriarchal, gaze remains as forbidding as ever. Some films at the receiving end of that onslaught—Udta Punjab (2016), Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017)—have been critical and commercial successes, exemplifying the wide chasm between these cultural custodians and an evolving audience willing to welcome new stories.
If the censor board has remained unchanged since the Bandit Queen judgement, in both structure and outlook, then so has India’s offence factory. Year after year, individuals and organizations advocate banning films and vandalize film sets and cinema halls because censorship, now more than ever, has become a performative arena, reflecting inchoate anxieties and the rise of identity politics. Where there was Om Pal Singh Hoon in 1996, there is a Shree Rajput Karni Sena in 2017—and many others in between.
Bandit Queen’s censor troubles were caused and compounded by regular citizens, from the members of the advisory panel constituting the examining and revising committee, to Hoon, an audience member. Subsequent examples of the inadequacies of the advisory panel are all too common, with examiners failing to evaluate scenes in their true context, and regularly rejecting globally acclaimed films. In 2014, for instance, according to the CBFC’s annual report, the examining committee rejected such films as Dheepan (2015), Spotlight (2015) and The Lobster (2015). Dheepan won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or; Spotlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture. When The Lobster was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2015, festival attendees queued up for hours to watch it.
“The selection process for advisory panel members is quite arbitrary," says Payal Mohanka, a journalist and documentary film-maker who served as an advisory panel member from 2009-14. The members—ideally drawn from “different walks of life"—are at times also “political nominees", she says. “These appointments are routinely done to reward party loyalists." As a result, on many occasions, the examining and revising committees comprise people who “aren’t acquainted with the language of cinema".
She remembered “one gentleman who would always sleep through the screenings—he had absolutely no interest in what was being shown". The attitude of some members was “quite horrific", she adds—they had a “sense of superiority" about them. Some of them openly asserted, and revelled in, the power. The director of a Bengali film, for instance, was once advised by an advisory panel member to “make a less political film". “It’s almost like your own sense of inadequacy has been given a boost," Mohanka says, “and you think you can call the shots over creative minds."
No qualifications are needed to become a member of the advisory panel, but, time and again, questions have been raised on its composition. In fact, midway during Mohanka’s term, advisory panel members were asked to submit their school and college marksheets. “There must have been some murmurs, some protests, about the fact that certain people must not be certifying films," she says.
The Draft Cinematograph Bill, 2010, prepared by the Union ministry of information and broadcasting to make film censorship relevant, proposed “additional qualifications" to become a “member of any advisory panel". The Mukul Mudgal committee, set up in 2013 in the wake of the controversy around Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, found that “the present procedure for the appointment of the members of the advisory panel" and the “quality of such panel is far from satisfactory". “At certain locations," the report continued, the members of the advisory panel lacked “any form of cinematic understanding". In fact, they perceived their role to be that of a “censor board" empowered “to cut and chop scenes and, in some cases, being affiliated to some political, religious, or social groups, impose without restraint, such political, religious, or personal opinions".
In 2002, Vijay Anand, a former chief of the censor board, proposed a reduction in the number of government-appointment advisory panel members (as well as proposing X-rated theatres). “Several commentators have suggested that this, not the X-rated theaters proposal, was the main reason that he was forced out of the CBFC chair," writes William Mazzarella, professor of anthropology and social sciences at the University of Chicago, in the 2013 book Censorium: Cinema And The Open Edge Of Mass Publicity. The report by the Shyam Benegal committee, submitted in April 2016, suggested that advisory panel members should be appointed on the recommendations of such bodies as the National Film Development Corporation of India, Federation of Film Societies of India, and the Film Federation of India, and the eventual “selection of members for the examining committee and revising committee should be done through a computerised software".
None of these proposals passed; the “archaic Cinematograph Act", as the Benegal report describes it, remains unchanged. In such a case, when the basic foundation of the CBFC needs urgent and comprehensive overhaul, the censor board often functions on the whims of the ruling party, which appoints, besides members of the advisory panel, the chairman, the CEO, the board members, the regional officers, and, more crucially, the members of FCAT.
It was precisely the foundational flaw of the CBFC that threatened to stall the release of Bandit Queen. Twenty-two years later, that flaw remains. Governmental interventions, as a result, have become more direct, prohibiting films from playing even at festivals. On the other hand, the number of audience members like Hoon has only increased, holding films hostage on the flimsy ground of hurt sentiments. We are where we were, and the CBFC, like Rip Van Winkle, refuses to wake up.