Stop Policing: Swara Bhaskar’s Open Letter to Pahlaj Nihalani

Central Board of Film Certification Pahlaj Mihalani Credit: PTI

Central Board of Film Certification Pahlaj Nihalani Credit: PTI

Respected Mr. Pahlaj Nihalani,

Your post, as Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification is one of such prestige and responsibility, with powers to regulate and certify cine and television content that an entire nation will watch, a position  that can make a significant impact to the larger cultural scenario in our society, that it is most reassuring to know that it is occupied by a person of your experience and stature.

On a personal note, my childhood memories are full of the recollection of watching and enjoying some of the films you produced.  Aankhein starring Govinda and Chunky Pandey was one of my favourite films, though I remember being scolded considerably by shocked parents who walked in on us kids watching the song “Anganaa mein baba, duwaarey pe Ma right at the moment when Govinda lifted Shilpa Shirodkar’s skirt and took a peek.

But I do not write to you to share nostalgia. The whole Udta Punjab (oops, sorry, no references to Punjab), Udta Blank  fracas reminded me of a minor career-irritant I have been wanting to bring to your notice for a while now. It turns out that you have been severely affecting and interfering with my work, though I am sure you are unaware and do not mean to. Other creative people in the film industry like me may feel the same way; but I speak strictly for myself.

 I am an actor (actress) sir, and have done big and small roles in big and small films variously. My latest release is a little film called Nil Battey Sannata where I play a maid and mother to a bratty teenaged daughter. Before this I’ve featured in supporting roles in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo and Raanjhanaa.

Every time I hear a  narration for a film offered to me, in my mind I begin to work on my character, body language and dialogue. Through the prep, shooting  and dubbing for the film I hone my dialect and use language that will add a distinctive flavour to the characters I play. And by God, I dub with gusto.

The following has happened during each of the last three films that I’ve dubbed. Some time after I think that I’ve completed the dubbing, I get a call from the team and am asked to come and re-dub certain portions of the film because, you and/or your review committee have said that the words sala/saali/haraamzada/rakhail  and bloody(!) variously will have to be removed if the makers want a U/A certificate. Of course haraami, kutiya and bitch have now been on the black list of unspeakable words for long. But poor ineffectual, almost affectionate words saalaa and saali???  Bloody, the term I heard my whole childhood from my gruff naval officer father when he felt affection for us: ‘you poor bloody brat ’ is offensive!?

Even in a certified family drama your team did not spare me and I was made to remove the word rakhail from my dub and (it brought tears to my eyes when I saw the final cut; but only actors would know what I feel) because I was not in the city and the final print had to be readied, a different voice dubbed that ONE WORD, just that one word in the final version of the film.

I began to feel Sir, that you and your team members were targeting me. I began to feel victimized; I almost began to feel like there was intolerance against me, but hush, let us not behave like sikular libtards and presstitutes and create mountains from molehill like facts.

So sir, I almost began to feel victimized until it was brought to my attention that other people dialogues were being butchered too.

In some cases like Tanu Weds Manu Returns I learnt that other entire dialogues in the film had to be changed due to this some stipulation and logic of yours and your team. One of the uncut dialogues was and is actually a popular saying in Uttar Pradesh. The original goes, “Hasratey Lucknow, Basratey Kanpur, Luchchi hai Barelliy aur haraami hai Rampur.”

It seems members of your review committee felt that Bareilly and Rampur would be offended by this dialogue. My wager of course is that someone from Rampur or Bareilly coined the saying! But honestly, it brought some relief to my aggrieved heart; it’s always nice to suffer in a collective.

The Udta Blank fracas has however convinced me of the just nature of your person. You are too magnanimous and far too great to victimize one pathetic, inconsequential actor. You are too much of a boss to bother about a small potato. Not when your infinite discretion and judgement can affect the entire field. So personally I thank you for putting a spanner in the works for Udta Blank; advising 89 cuts, disallowing any reference to Punjab (in a film based on a social reality in Punjab) thereby stalling its release. In my eyes this is a reflection of your inherent sense of justice. You are not one to harass the small fish, no sir, you are the one to ‘chlorinate’ the entire ocean.

In the weeks before release, when the film is in your hands and there are ten thousand things a producer must take care of, it is unlikely that the producers or directors will pick a quarrel with you on a matter of principle over one or two or ten little slang or cuss words, 89 cuts or the very title of the film itself.

I can’t vouch for Anurag Kashyap, he is known to be a noisy troublesome fellow himself; but I can tell you that poor Sooraj Barjatya, himself a ‘U’ certified scion of the Rajshri school of family dramas must have been quite puzzled when you and your team directed him to drop the word rakhail from his saga of sibling love and rivalry in Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo. That he, the gentlest of souls, most polite, modest, gracious of gentlemen found the word acceptable in a hardcore family film and you found it objectionable is a true testimony of your righteousness. At the rate at which you are going you may soon sprout wings and turn into a veritable Udtaa Pahlaj!

Swara Bhaskar in Nil Battey Sannata. Credit: PTI

Swara Bhaskar in Nil Battey Sannata. Credit: PTI

Producers are unfortunate creatures before the release of a film; you would know, you belong to the tribe. Their money is at stake, a lot of it and come Friday weekend, the gamble could go any way. A difference of A, U/A or U is a difference that also has financial implications. They are likely to (and they do) bow down to your diktats, cuts and other creative inputs, even if it means damaging their own content.

I, on the other hand, am an actor with no money at stake anywhere and am a bit of a vagabond; I enjoy discussions and debate. Hence this letter. Laudable are your efforts indeed, and I quote you, “The overall agenda is to ensure that we don’t put out anything that will be harmful to society.”

I however want to bring to your attention that a deliberately sanitised art and popular culture may not be the healthiest thing for a society.  No society in the world is sanitised. There is a lot that is wrong, dirty, shameful, filthy and abusive everywhere in the world. Art reflects its context and the society it was created in. To produce sanitised art that is unable to accommodate or reflect the less savoury aspects of society is to wear blinders and that too unnecessarily. It is also the beginning of becoming delusional. The flip side of a sanitised atmosphere is sterility. And sterility is the opposite of birth, the antithesis of the creation of new things, in biology and in culture.

I am sure you are aware that our folk and local cultures are replete with slang, abuse and double meaning innuendo. So much so that wedding rituals and songs across the Hindi belt in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have occasions when the groom and his family are mocked and ridiculed with innuendo and abuse. Thankfully CBFC as yet does not have the burden of regulating folk content or wedding rituals! So really I wondered what was offensive to you and your team about the popular folk idiom Hasratey Lucknow etc. Considering the people it mentioned  and those who created  it don’t seem to mind at all.

Similarly in the case of Udta Blank, the idea that a film based on a social reality in Punjab, should not have any references to Punjab or any city in Punjab is, don’t you think, illogical?  Sir you will appreciate that I have not once raised the Freedom of Expression issue. I know such minor constitutional matters rile great men in power, like your esteemed self.

Walk down the road, or a click on YouTube and you will find that the precious impressionable young of our nation get to see and hear a lot more; who are we protecting and what from?

My  particular grouse Sir is that you and your team interferes with my work and my art when you pick on particular words and I am forced to re-dub them with words less offensive to your board, even if the end result is out of sync. Any serious actor will tell you that everything we say and do is for a reason, with a motivation, in an effort to convey something. Nothing is meaningless. So when I say ‘habdan saali’,  ‘Bhak saalaa’ or ‘bloody’ or even ‘haraamzaadaa,  I am either being authentic to my character’s linguistic context or state of mind.

 I cannot overstate the point but I try really hard to add some memorable flavour and authenticity to my roles and you and your team have often hosed all my sincere acting efforts with Ganga jal. And this is both a complaint and a fear. The next time I play a character who belongs to a certain class context that requires a certain kind of crude speech, and I work hard and deliver that performance, some sanitation loving do-gooder from your team will come along and have me re-dub my so- called offensive part and that will be the end of the authenticity of my acting.  At this rate, how  will I  ever get a National Award sir?

Another harmful side-effect of this kind of atmosphere of sanitisation and policing is that it produces a Pavlovian fear among artists and creative people.  In one case, after I had redubbed all my so-called offensive words, a paranoid if well- intentioned member of the film team made me change a reference to a girl being ‘slutty’ to ‘sultry’ for fear that somebody’s feelings maybe hurt.

I couldn’t  suppress  the tiny thought that wriggled into my head that, self censorship is the beginning of a policed society. You may say that there is nothing wrong with a little discipline and policing in public life but do note Sir that the only work of art a policed society is able to produce (with State permission) is propaganda. But I don’t need to tell you about this. You, the creator of those glowing tributes to our Hon’ble current Prime Minister; that wonderful pre election video campaign ‘Har Har Modi Ghar Ghar Modi’ and the post-election music video ‘Mera Desh Mahaan’ (that was made mandatory for exhibitors to screen before films in theatres).

Also as I am an ardent watcher of your films, and a child who was not morally ruined at all by the gyrating pelvises, heaving breasts or rank sexual innuendoes and miming of the act of sexual intercourse in the songs “Yeh maal gaadi,  tu dhakkaa lagaa” and “Khadaa hai, khadaa hai” from your film Andaaz(1994); I have full faith that the children of this country will survive hearing saalaa rakhail, haraamzada and yes, even bloody occasionally in the films they watch.

Yours ever respectfully,

Swara Bhaskar

  • ujjwal

    Swara, first , I loved the life like roles you played in the three commercial movies. Nil bate Sannata is still to be watched.
    As far as you dismay on censor of word “Rakhail” goes, such people who are themself “Keep” of some “Very Very High placed person” , feel sloth and guilty and can’t stand it. So, they want such words to be removed.
    Keep the good work in film … keep being bold. Glad that not all stars need to “Sit on the Lap” of that highly placed person.


    Even Om Puri was unhappy (ABP News, News conference, June 11) with Nihalani policing films. So, Nihalani along with censor board must go!!

  • ashok759

    With the Bombay High Court judgment today, the CBFC has been defanged. It would be well advised to now function strictly in accordance the Constitution and relevant apex court judgments. Whether the Chairman stays or goes, not much turns on that any longer.