James Bond is known for going up against international organizations and penetrating their defenses with aplomb. But with the release of “Spectre,” the latest Bond adventure, the iconic British spy has finally discovered an opponent he can’t beat: the Central Board of Film Certification in India.
The film board demanded trims to two kissing scenes in “Spectre” and also ordered that some salty language be cut. Sony Pictures acceded to the order, but the episode angered many in India who believe it illustrates increasing prudishness by the film board as well as a disturbing trend toward rising intolerance in the country.
According to the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1952, clearance from the film certification board is mandatory for public exhibition of movies in India. The body has come under frequent fire during the past year, after its previous chairman and half its board members walked out in protest against the “interference, coercion and corruption” of the new government, led by the socially conservative, Hindu-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party.
The film board’s new head, veteran film producer Pahlaj Nihalani, has close ties to the Narendra Modi-led government. Nihalani made a promotional video for Modi’s election campaign, and in the past, has referred to India’s prime minister as his “action hero.”
In “Spectre,” the film board’s examining committee had issues with the duration of the kisses between Daniel Craig’s Bond and his leading ladies Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci — finding them “unnecessarily excessive” — and asked the producers to cut them in half. It also complained about the use of a slang word for testicles, ordering the term be changed to “cats.”
The dictates evoked sharp criticism from some members of the body, who claimed to be alienated from the decision-making process. Board member Nandini Sardesai wondered what rendered a kiss “too long.” Another member, Ashoke Pandit, tweeted that Nihalani had messed up an “internationally applauded film” like “Spectre” by shading it with his own thought process. “I feel it’s a mockery of the freedom of a film-maker,” he added.
Social media did not respond kindly to the news, either. #SanskaariJamesBond (“a cultured James Bond”) became a trending topic in India and dominated Twitter for days after, with users joking about situations like Ursula Andress’ famous bikini scene from “Dr. No” being replaced by an Indian woman wearing a sari.
Sony Pictures made the required cuts to “Spectre” in time for its release in India this month, where moviegoers responded enthusiastically. In a country where the average multiplex ticket costs less than $3, the film grossed around $5 million in its opening weekend, becoming the franchise’s biggest hit in India.
“Spectre” joins a growing list of films — both Indian and international — that have been censured by Indian authorities in the past year. “Tamasha,” a recent romantic drama featuring superstars Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor, had to shorten a kiss by 90% in order to appease the censors. “Dum Laga Ke Haisha,” a comedy, had to mute the word “lesbian” in its dialogue.
One of the biggest controversies the certification board embroiled itself in was issuing a list of words that films would be prohibited from using. The forbidden terms included abuses like a Hindi slang for “prostitute,” but also “masturbation” and “Bombay,” the colonial name for Mumbai.
The swift and vehement backlash elicited by this rule forced the film body to cancel its plans, although some of the damage had already been done. “50 Shades of Grey” did not receive a release in India — even after Universal Studios preemptively trimmed its sex scenes — because of the film’s language.
Nihalani’s appointment is seen as a part of the Modi government’s overarching ambition to place sympathetic figures at the apex of India’s cultural institutions. When the government installed Hindu conservatives in the governing body of the Film and Television Institute of India — the country’s premier filmmaking school — students went on strike for more than four months. Some protesting students were arrested by the local police during a nighttime crackdown.
Nihalani has publicly denounced the protests, at one point calling the students “anti-national,” and plans to make a film that will show the FTII’s working system.
The political and cultural climate engendered by such controversies has become a cause of concern for several Indian artists, many of whom recently returned their government-distributed awards in protest.
“Our radical ideas are being brutally ‘cleansed’ and made to appease a section of society that is overtly protectionist,” filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan said in an email. Ghaywan’s debut feature, “Masaan,” premiered at this year’s Cannes film festival and won the Prix de l’Avenir, but had to undergo cuts from the film certification board before its Indian release.
The myopic attitude of Indian authorities is “killing the flavour and culture of Indian society,” Ghaywan said. “It is deeply saddening.”
Maheshwari is a special correspondent.