One of the crucial curbs on freedom in India is on right to expression, as seen by the monstrous rule of un-law by the film certification board under the saffron controller Pahlaj Nihalani



Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music and society, giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian.

It was 1977. The chocking Emergency run by late Indira Gandhi had ended. The Janata Party had come to power. India Today ran an iconic photograph by Raghu Rai: Indira’s torn posters being swept away by a jharudaar in the streets of Delhi, where till then she was the monarch of all she surveyed.

The Emergency had enraged the entire country, especially the intelligentsia. And literature and theatre around its ills were flooding the market.

And thus it is that a small time director and Janata Party MP Amrit Nahata lampooned the bitter reality of Emergency and through his film, Kissa Kursi Ka. But the story did not go out well with the Congress government, which returned to power two years later. The film was banned by the certification board. In the meanwhile, the party workers of Congress picked up all the prints and the master-print of the film from the Certification Board office and later brought it to the Maruti factory in Gurgaon, where they were burned.

The film became a powerful tool for Janata Party in destroying the Indira Gandhi-led Congress in the 1977 Lok Sabha polls. The Shah Commission, established by Janata government to inquire into the excesses committed during Emergency, found Sanjay Gandhi, along with VC Shukla, then Information and Broadcasting minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, guilty of burning the negative. Another film directed by veteran writer and director Gulzar also faced the same wrath of the certification board for his film Aandhi. The film starring Sanjeev Kumar and Suchitra Sen had a close resemblance with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s life and was banned during the Emergency.

Nevertheless, when power changed hands in the centre and Janata Party came to the power in 1977, it lifted the ban and released the movie.

Indu Sarkar

Now, the year 2107 another film – Indu Sarkar is coming up on the backdrop of the Emergency has been battling for the certification from the certification board. The film as per sources inspired by the life of then PM Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi. But now in the country when the political regime has been changed and the director of the film, Madhur Bhandarkar is also known close to the ruling party BJP then the question arises why CBFC had fallen on his film?

This time the certification board has asked to remove the newspaper clippings showing names of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Morarji Desai and Lal Krishna Advani and words like RSS, Akali, Jaiprakash Narayan, PM, IB.

The Central Film Certification Board (CBFC) has asked the movie, Indu Sarkar, to make 12 cuts and add two disclaimers.

So these two incidences give a clear insight that in India certification board works not just for a certification but also to please and act as a watchdog of the political regime. Recently, it has asked the producer of the documentary The Argumentative Indian on Dr Amartya Sen to remove the words ‘Hindu India’, ‘Gujarat’ and ‘Cow’. The Argumentative Indian is actually the famous book of Amartya Sen, on which director Suman Ghosh made this documentary, which he named after this book. The film is shot in two parts, one part is from 2002 and the rest is 2017.

On the issue of the documentary, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has raised the political pitch, flayed the Centre for “trying to muzzle every opposition voice in the country”. But in the case of War Cry of the Beggars, the state panel of West Bengal refused to give certification. A documentary on the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, An Insignificant Man has landed in trouble with the certification board as the filmmaker duo Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla are claiming they have been asked to remove references to the BJP and Congress.

Dark Lipsticks

The bitter spat of the CBFC chairman Pahlaj Nihalani with the director of a bold film Lipstick Under My Burkha, Alankrita Srivastava is known to everyone now.

Lipstick Under My Burkha had to wait for the approval of the certification board to be released in India for a long time. After the legal intervention, the film is being released in India, but producer Prakash Jha was very disappointed with this attitude of the certification board.

He said, “I am not against Pahlaj Nihalani. He is working from a particular perspective. For a long time, I am demanding the removal of the certification board, it is not needed. They should only give certificates of films.”

Well, like him many directors and producers are disgruntled with the fanatic approach of the CBFC and its chairman Pahlaj Nihalani. In recent months the certification board has been embroiled in numerous controversies. They say that they are not against Pahlaj Nihalani but the head of the certification board acts like a deeply rooted follower of RSS ideology. A 65-year-old filmmaker said that the certification board is not about certification things in the film, but to give the certificates. Kabir Bedi expressed his displeasure against the certificationship; he said that the board is spoiling the image of India and termed its chairman Pahlaj Nihalani as a ‘tragedy’. Certification board chairmanship has made Pahlaj Nihalani more famous than any Bollywood superstar for his absurd sanskari diktat.

The board has reached the limit in the case of certificating where there was never before. Nihalani is taking on a role of a moral policeman. He took the office of the chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) on 19 January 2015. Soon after his appointment, he floated a new set of extremely strict guidelines under which few curse words will not be allowed even in the ‘A’ category.

He also said that depiction of violence against women will be discouraged and it will be ensured that no content which may hurt religious sentiments will be allowed. From reducing the length of kisses from a Hollywood film Spectra to words like ‘intercourse’, ‘Man ki Baat’ ‘Hindu’, ‘Gujarat’ and ‘Cow’.

‘Gujarat’ is not the first name of any place on which the board has expressed objection. Earlier, Nihalani has released a complete list of words which cannot be used in films. These include ‘Bombay’ and ‘Punjab’ too.

The board instructed the makers of ‘Udta Punjab’ to remove the reference to Punjab word from it. It was a kind of absurd list and after the leak of it, the certification board had to face a lot of embarrassment.

Udta Punjab

Anurag Kashyap’s movie Udta Punjab’s struggle for getting a release date from certification board took the producers to court. Pahlaj Nihalani smelt a political controversy so the board asked for the name to be changed, and ordered 89 cuts in the film that deals with the issue of drug addiction in Punjab. The film had good budget and a big producer with deep A pocket that allowed it to take the case to the Mumbai High Court, where clearly the court told Nihalani and board that their job was to certify films, not censor them; another clue is that the organisation they work for is called the Central Board of Film Certification; but the certifications seem happy to ignore this court directive. For the Shlok Sharma-directed film Haraamkhor, in which actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui played the protagonist, the certification board gave a big No.

Pahlaj Bin-laaj

After watching the film the board said that this is a very serious subject. The image of teachers in the film has been misrepresented, it held. Therefore, it cannot be released. The small budget award winning Haraamkhor’s producers did not have deep pockets so they could not beat certification in the court.

In Anushka Sharma’s Phillauri there was the scene when the hero starts to read Hanuman Chalisa in front of ghost Anushka but the ghost-turned Anushka does not run away. The filmmaker deleted this scene from the film. Behind the removal, the board has argued that in society it is believed that the ghost gets away from the text of Hanuman Chalisa while Anushka, who is a ghost in this film, is not afraid. This could cause objection to a particular class.

Chandra Prakash Dwivedi’s Mohalla Assi is fighting with the board since 2015, still they have not got any certification and in the meantime the scenes were also leaked on YouTube.

The certification board certifies more than 2,500 films (feature, short and documentary) in all Indian languages each year. If we look at the statistics in 2015-16, the board denied certification to 77 films. Around 1,700 films managed a release. The number of small budget films shut in the cans because they did not get the certification certificate is huge. It is also true that people only notice prominent names out of those that don’t get released.

Director Kaustav Narayan Niyogi said, “It’s absolutely unfortunate that so many films get stuck. Remuneration is one kind of reward but the larger issue for a creative person is the effort they’ve put in and not knowing whether the film would meet expectations. Forget appreciation or criticism, just the fact that the effort hasn’t been seen is disappointing.”

The fee for getting a Hindi or English feature film certified ranges from Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000, depending on the movie’s length. Regional language films pay lower fees. Now, these films are also facing the ban. Pahlaj Nihalani refused to certify Malayalam movie Ka Bodyscapes for its ‘homosexual’ content. Film Unfreedom was also banned because it is dealing with same sex relationships and religious issues.

In fact, post facto, this monstrous regulator rues how did films like PK, Gangs of Wasseypur and Omkara got certified, while he was still in the Nagpur bus stand.

Religiously Protective

In an interview given to Deccan Chronicle Nihalani said, “We, at CBFC, are not homophobic. We’ve passed films like Aligarh, Moonlight and Parched, which had homosexual themes,” he asserts. “No, the reason for rejecting certification to this film (Unfreedom) is its highly inflammatory references to Hindu religion and mythology. Our guidelines clearly state that any derogatory reference to any religion is absolutely prohibited. So, let’s not even go there.”

However, Raj Kumar Hirani had a lot of light-hearted religious banter in PK. “I wasn’t the chairperson when PK was certified,” Pahlaj says. “If it took digs at religion, then it shouldn’t have been allowed. We can’t allow filmmakers to create a law and order situation in the name of art.” Like Ka Bodyscapes, many other regional films are also facing the scissors of the certification board. Kangal Malsat (War Cry of the Beggars) is another such movie which was refused certification by the Central Board of Film Certification following a report by the state’s revising committee. The committee was chaired by a member of Mamata Banerjee’s culture mafia, filmmaker Haranath Chakraborty. According to Suman Mukhopadhyay, director of the film, the critical comments about Calcutta turning into London and Tata’s departure from Singur were not digested by the state committee, therefore, the state panel felt the scene might “hurt sentiments” and create “unrest” or “violence”.

In the case of Telugu film, Sharanam Gachchami, which addresses caste-based reservations, the board’s regional office has refused to issue the certificate needed for public exhibition, noting that the film was “likely to affect public order and disrupt peace”.

The same fate met the Gujarati film, Salagto Sawaal Anamat (Burning Question of Reservation). The CBFC refused certification to the movie on the ground if released in its present form, the film may create law and order problem. Its makers have also moved the tribunal.

Filmmakers of the global hit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn’t release the film in India after they found the CBFC’s demand of cuts to be unreasonable.

No Rhyme, Nor Reason

Even video songs are also not spared by the board. Sorry, a song written and sung by RJ-turned-singer Mihir Joshi had gone to the Central Board of Film Certification last December. The song is about a father apologising to his daughter for the injustice and violence that women face in the country. Joshi said he had used “Bombay” instead of “Mumbai” because it rhymed with the word “today”. The board had then objected to the use of the word “Bombay”, saying the city is now called “Mumbai”. So it was beeped out.

Nowadays, Pahlaj Nihalani is more concerned about nudity. He stated, “Content has gotten bolder but there was also a lot of corruption until 2013 and many B and C-grade films would get passed despite great violence and explicit scenes. We have tried to be more stringent in passing films based entirely on merit.”

Nihalani’s Innuendoes

So it is prudent to mention that Nihalani himself produced a film called Andaz in 1994 which had crass innuendoes and double-meaning words in songs that glorified erections and the bump and grind of intercourse. Though he seems to be a strict chair there are still shortcomings in the board. On the release of A or adult rated films, a Right to Information query revealed that CBFC had reclassified 172 adult-rated movies as general category films over the past four years without following its own rules. Pune-based social activist Vihar Durve filed the query, which has also led to the revelation that the CBFC or certification board had approved nearly 100 films within a week of receiving the applications. The comptroller and auditor general (CAG) has in its report hinted that these films may have been allowed to jump the queue, alleging that their speedy clearance suggests “favouritism” towards select producers.

Further, another 166 films initially classified “U/A” which means under-12 viewers must be accompanied by adult guardians had been reclassified as “U” for unrestricted viewing. These include some famous films like Madras Café, Fukrey, Ek Villain and Singham Returns.

In a bid to ensure transparency in the film certification process certification board will now certify films online.

False Digitisation

According to a statement released by the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry, online film certification system or e-cine pramaan is in line with PM Narendra Modi’s vision of Digital India and ease of doing business. Up until now, the film producers have had to submit their movies physically at the CBFC office. The office of certification board in the White House building looks like any other government office, which has not changed since a long time.

Big and small producers revolve around getting their films certified. Any filmmaker has to apply to the certification board through an agent for the certification of his film. Also, it has been an open secret how money exchanges hands for a film to get the desirable CBFC certificate.

The stories of the scenes leaked from the films before their release are not unknown. Manjhi, Byomkesh Bakshy, Udta Punjab, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Preman, Parched were some of the films whose copies were available before their release. Former CEO Rakesh Kumar was arrested in 2014 after allegedly being caught accepting a bribe of Rs 50,000 from a producer. The arrest had created a furore.


The process of certification is also antediluvian. Any filmmaker who requests the film’s certificate, the agent asks him to give all the papers, movie CDs or DVDs and other things at the office of the certification board and he is in the process. Of course, the agent also takes money for this work and this amount depends on how long the movie is.

To get certification of a short film, the agent takes between 5,000 to 10,000 rupees. After that, there are 2 to 4 people (if it is a short film then two people, for feature length or a long movie, 4 people) who look at it very closely. These people are called ‘reviewers’. These people review the film keeping in mind the instructions of the certification board. For example, if any shot shows a character smoking, then the producer has to have a disclaimer associated with the danger of cigarette consumption.

If an animal has been shown anywhere in the film, then the filmmaker has to take ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the Animal Board in Chennai and at the beginning of the film, a title plate has to be written, which says that during the film no animal was harmed. Apart from this, they often ask for a shot at which they have an objection, or they are asked to mute where invectives are used. Apart from this, if dubbing is done in the film then it is also required for a dub certificate and if there are some changes made in the film, then the confirmation has to be there in the film’s certificate.

Each reviewer has to prepare a report in writing, which contains what his recommendation is about the film. Like what to delete in the movie, where to mute, what dialogues and other things are objectionable. The Examination Committee also decides which category of the film should be certified. All these reports are given to the chairman and then the chairman issues the film certificate. At the request of the filmmaker, the chairman can also sit the Revising Committee to re-evaluate the film. Many filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap have been questioning this procedure; they had come out in the open to speak on how difficult and financially cumbersome it had become to get a film passed through the certification board.

However, the process of certification is nowadays controlled tightly but the story of certification is as much as fascinating as the history of cinema in India.


These days, when the process of deciding the ratings of films by the certification board is being questioned, it will not be less interesting to know how the certificationship started in India. When the films began to be formed in the undergoing Indian state, the anti-British struggle was getting prominent as small protests and movements. In such environment when the films started to be regularised, the British Government was alerted. They knew that if the films were made without any rickety, they would start teaching the lessons of freedom very effectively.

Therefore, in order to control this business, the Cinematography Act was introduced in 1918, under which it would be necessary to obtain a license for film exhibition. It was then said that the purpose of this law is to save films from obscenity, to keep free from anti-social ideology and to not let the religious sentiments get hurt, but in reality, the purpose of the certification was to save the cinema from any kind of independence.

The British government did not want that whatever is going on in the country to be made into films. This was the reason that initially the investigation of the films was entrusted to the police department too. In 1973 veteran filmmaker MS Sathyu had to fight a long battle with censor board to get the certification for Garam Hawa. Balraj Sahni-starrer Garam Hawa was based on the story of noted Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai, for its post partition theme. The film was held up by the certification board for several years. Ironically it won a National Film Award after release.

Rights Issue

Cinema in India is over 100 years old. The state has no right to curtail freedom of speech and no right to curtail business of films. It showed how corruption had become a way of life in the statutory body that regulates public exhibition of films in India. Therefore, now it is a need of a time that we should change our attitude and process regarding the certification of the cinema. A panel has been also set up for revamping the board but its recommendations are not implemented yet. A committee headed by the veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal, in April 2016, had submitted its report on the functioning of CBFC.

The committee had suggested a revision in the processes for certifying films and the certification involved therein, following which the government had said that it will introduce a new Cinematograph Act to adopt a more liberal approach. But CBFC seems to believe that cinema must operate within the boundaries it mandates. Films addressing the societal changes, economic issues, alas, infringing these boundaries often.


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