I Feel Victimised: Swara Bhaskar’s Open Letter to Pahlaj Nihalani
Respected Mr Pahlaj Nihalani,
At the outset Sir, a delayed congratulations on your appointment as Chairperson, Censor Board Film Certification (CBFC). It is a post of such prestige and responsibility – with powers to regulate and certify the cine and television content – that an entire nation will watch; a post that can make a significant impact on the larger cultural scenario in our society, and 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 recollections 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, duaare pe ma right at the moment when Govinda lifted Shilpa Shirodkar’s skirt and took a peek.
But I do not write to you for nostalgic purposes. The whole Udta Punjab...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 are 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 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.
Why Bleep Out Cuss Words?
Every time I hear a narration for a film offered to me, in my mind I begin to work on my character, body language 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. Sometime after I think that I’ve completed 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 has said that the words sala/saali/haraamzada/rakhail and bloody (!) variously will have to be removed if the makers wanted a U/A certificate.
Of course haraami, kutiya and bitch have now been on the blacklist of unspeakable words for long. But poor, ineffectual, almost affectionate saalaa and saali??? ‘Bloody’, the term I heard my whole childhood from my gruff naval officer father when he felt affection for us, “Oh you poor bloody brat!”, 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 targetting me. I began to feel victimised; I almost began to feel like there was intolerance against me…But shooooo!!!! Let us not behave like ‘sikular libtards’ and ‘presstitutes’ and create mountains from facts… I mean mole-hills...
So Sir, I almost began to feel victimised until it was brought to my attention that other people’s dialogues were being butchered too.
Sanitised Art Not Healthy
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. Come Friday, the gamble could go any way. A difference of A, U/A or U has monetary implications. They are likely to bow down to your diktats, cuts and other creative inputs, even if it means damaging their own content.
Laudable are your efforts indeed, and I quote you,
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. 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 a sanitised art, that is unable to accommodate or reflect the less savoury aspects of society is to wear blinders, 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.
Fallout of Self-Censorship
My particular grouse Sir, is that you and your team interfere 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 they are 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. 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!
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. I couldn’t help 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 are 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).
I just have this to ask you. Is there a way in which I can protect my performance from the arbitrary opinion of people who have not seen or understood my preparation and process as an actor, who do not understand the context of the script or its performative requirements?
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, bloody, chutiya, rakhail, haraamzada etc. occasionally in the films they watch.
Yours ever respectfully,
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