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Censorship: Pahlaj Nihalani’s Roman scissors

Published : Jun 23, 2016, 2:33 am IST
Updated : Jun 23, 2016, 2:33 am IST

Pahlaj Nihalani, the chief of the Central Board of Film Certification, wanted 89 cuts to the film Udta Punjab.

The job the boss of India’s ‘censor board’ imagines he occupies originated over 2,500 years ago.
 The job the boss of India’s ‘censor board’ imagines he occupies originated over 2,500 years ago.

Pahlaj Nihalani, the chief of the Central Board of Film Certification, wanted 89 cuts to the film Udta Punjab. The Bombay high court cut him down to just one and today he stands suitably chastised, but unembarrassed about his attempts to curtail freedom of expression.

In ancient Rome, he would have won.

To filmmaker Anurag Kashyap’s ears, Nihalani’s demands sounded like a dictator exercising imperium. The post that Nihalani imagines he occupies was first created in the 6th century BCE by a legendary king of Rome, Servius Tullius, centuries before Rome became a republic. We know of him thanks to the likes of Cicero and Livy, who filled the late 1st century BCE with their writings, some of it to do with Rome’s mythological past to remind their people of the Roman way. The first job of a censor was to count heads and maintain a register of people, their lands and property, slaves and cattle, and rank, all this always helpful for that other age-old ill: taxation. Only after that was he to consider his second duty as the keeper of public morals, or Regimen morum. The Latin term differed depending on whether you lived in a time of republic or empire. This made him a dangerous person to cross. The punishment meted out is from where the modern word gets its meaning: he could cut you out of his list of citizens, or have you ejected from the Senate, or decide you really didn’t have it in you to be a Patrician, all this for any number of offences, ranging from being celibate when you shouldn’t to public immorality to anything that might stain the character of Rome herself. In today’s parlance, he would simply censor you. This is from where the seeking of licence to protect tradition, or “sanskar” to Mr Nihalani’s followers, begins.

This is also the problem. Mr Nihalani’s attitude belongs to an age in which dictators, emperors and states suppressed individual freedoms, a time long since dead, killed by knowledge and accumulated wisdom paid for in countless lives over the centuries. The past was a bloody place.

But if only Mr Nihalani really was a censor. The deleting of parts of a film by one person, or a committee, in India should never have been allowed. The job of the Central Board of Film Certification is implicit in the last word in its title. Certification does not require scissors and acetone. The word “censor” forms no part of the body’s title nor is it mentioned in the Cinematograph Act of 1952, at least not after the early Eighties when the rules were revised and the organisation once known as the Central Board of Film Censors came by its current name.

The early 20th century censor boards were in the hands of the chiefs of police of the Presidencies of the Raj, which might explain the policeman attitude and the gross misinterpretation of the law on the subject, whether for political reasons or for reasons of cinematic taste. In this case, the latter is unlikely.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Octavian, who ended the Roman Republic, was as Augustus the last to appoint a censor. From then on, the post was subsumed by the emperors themselves. A democracy has no place for emperors.