Bollywood’s Week of Nightmares… And Silence!

It’s been a terrible week for Bollywood, one whose long-term implications that can be terrible for the industry. On Sunday, 12 days before the film’s slated December 1 release, Padmavati’s producers announced an indefinite postponement. They didn’t have a choice. Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) rejected the film’s application on technical grounds, because the film was submitted without a due disclaimer.

In normal circumstances, this should not have been an issue. The film was apparently submitted to CBFC three weeks before its release, much before many films are submitted. Usually, CBFC is known to prioritise films that are due for release, and finish the process, especially if there are no major cuts suggested, within a week. Here, they took almost a week to even reject the application.

This slowdown, evidently influenced by political interests, was justified through a CBFC “rule” that no one in the industry or the media even knew of till then. Curiously enough, details of the said 68-day rule are now firmly placed on the CBFC website homepage (here).

For years, films have been certified in the lead up to their release, often a week or two in advance. This archaic rule was never even in the consideration, till it was dug up conveniently for Padmavati. But it would look a bit odd if you apply the rule only to Padmavati. Hence, a go-slow approach has been taken for some other films as well.

Two films originally scheduled to release today (Nov 24) – Firangi and Tera Intezaar – have shifted to next week because they couldn’t be certified in time for their schedule release. The difference is that unlike Padmavati’s case, they have announced a release date (Dec 1), with the confidence that the process will be complete within this week. That’s a much shorter time than 68 days.

This newly-discovered rule is set to become a convenient defence when CBFC wants to act tough on a film. In hindsight, they could have used this rule on films they had issues with, in the recent past, such as Udta Punjab. But Pahlaj Nihalani probably didn’t know of the rule himself. It would be insightful to know who dug up this rule, and whether it was a person from the CBFC or the government.

Faced with an indefinite certification delay, which could last till early-2018, Padmavati’s producers had to delay the film’s release. Meanwhile, during the last five days, four state governments have “banned” the film, citing law and order concerns arising out of cultural sensitivities. This ban should be easily challenge-able in the Supreme Court, which is the only neutral party remaining in this entire fiasco. But to even approach the Supreme Court, Padmavati needs a CBFC certificate, which is still away by the best part of 68 days!

As an interesting way of countering the protests against the film, Sanjay Leela Bhansali organised a special press screening for select news editors. Arnab Goswami and Rajat Sharma covered the film extensively on their channels, highlighting how it has none of the concerns expressed by the protestors. Bhansali’s choice of personalities was a bold one. Both are known to lean towards the right wing, and will take a liberal stance only when all logic leads in that direction. The endorsement from Goswami and Sharma, hence, should have been definitive even for the political powers in various states. Instead, it was ignored, and the film “banned”, without any of those banning having actually seen it.

CBFC Chairman Prasoon Joshi reacted to the controversy in a manner that was surprisingly immature for a man of his stature. He seemed to be upset about the makers showing the film to editors before the CBFC clearance. This makes little sense for anyone who knows how the industry, of which Joshi is a part too, functions. Private screenings of films are a well-established form of gathering feedback from various constituents, ranging from family and friends to cast and crew to regular audiences. We have conducted more than 800 test screenings of various films over the last seven years as a part of our work. All such screenings are legal, because they are not ticketed and hence not an “exhibition”. But Joshi was not quoting the law. He was making just another attempt to attack a film, which is the victim of a major political operation currently.

All these years, in Pahlaj Nihalani’s domain, CBFC was this villain out there to curb creativity. It was repeatedly debated that their role should be limited to certification, with no power to censor, except in extreme cases, such as threat to national security. In Padmavati’s case, CBFC has acquired powers that will make Nihalani look like a paper tiger. CBFC can now delay any film by almost a quarter, throwing the entire release calendar in a tizzy.

The entire happenings of the last two weeks can spell big trouble for the industry. Kangana Ranaut’s Jhansi Ki Rani biopic is scheduled for a 2018 release. I’m predicting we will see this cycle being repeated again, though maybe at a smaller scale. Making political films was a no-no all these years. Now, even making historical films could enter that taboo list. More generically, the political control over the business of cinema is now out in the open. And that’s the problem that should affect every maker, writer, actor, distributor and exhibitor in the business.

But the industry is largely silent, even as they see the drama unfold around them, with threats to behead one of their own, and an impact on their business which is not of their own making. Will they pay the price for this silence over the long-term? That’s another topic for another day.

This post first appeared on MXMIndia on my weekly column.

About Shailesh Kapoor

Founder & CEO - Ormax Media. Film Lover. Media Insights Detective. Budding Author. Lifelong Student.
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