back to top

Dear Pahlaj Nihalani, Let's Talk About Sex

One man's squeamishness is holding an entire nation back.

Posted on

Amidst reports of alarmingly routine communal violence and unbridled nationalistic fervour, an absurd media exercise is currently occupying mind-space in the world’s largest democracy. Pahlaj Nihalani, the chairman of India's film certification body — the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), commonly referred to as the Censor Board — has asked for one lakh votes to clear the word ‘intercourse’ from one of the promos of the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan-Anushka Sharma starrer Jab Harry Met Sejal.

The promo in question, which was uploaded on YouTube under the title ‘Indemnity Bond’, shows Sharma presenting Khan with a document and saying a line that ends with “… amounting or not amounting to full intercourse”.

It is Nihalani’s contention that this obviously light-hearted scene, featuring the word ‘intercourse’, while okay for the internet, is inappropriate for TV audiences as existing laws ban the broadcast of adult content.

"You take voting from the public and I will clear the word (intercourse) on the promo and the film also. I want one lakh votes and I want to see that India has changed and Indian families want their 12-year-old kids to understand the meaning of this word (intercourse)," he told the TV channel Mirror Now last Friday.

As though the situation wasn’t embarrassing enough, Nihalani later laid down further conditions for this ‘poll’: “Look, I don't want 1 lakh votes on Twitter. That won't be difficult to get. I want 1 lakh votes on the same channel whom I told that 1 lakh votes are required. Importantly, I will not settle for votes from unmarried people. And neither will I be satisfied if votes come from people who are less than 36-years old. Assuming that an average age when a man/woman gets married is 23, I think they would have a 12-year old child when they are 36. Hence I want the voting public to be at least 36-years-old (sic). Only then I will feel that India has broadened its outlook and I shall recommend to the government that the word 'intercourse' should be included in Harry Met Sejal and any film hereafter."

Nihalani’s comments prompted Mirror Now to actually start a farcical poll to gauge popular sentiment. The fact that the poll is being conducted on Twitter invalidates the exercise, but at the time of writing this, an overwhelming 79% of 1,27,637 votes were in favour of the word ‘intercourse’ being retained.

Nihalani seems to be to telling us: “Look, the India you liberal, educated elites live in is not the real India. I have to certify films for the real India, where sex is a taboo. Do you get me now?”

Predictably, this Kafkaesque situation has resulted in the usual flurry of online outrage, with many dubbing the move ‘ridiculous’ and an act of ‘megalomania’. ‘Are we really going to sit back and let a relic go on an arbitrary rampage?’ asked filmmaker Kanu Behl. ‘This abuse of office is now normalising censorship of culture by the state,’ said filmmaker Anand Gandhi.

Current and former CBFC members have alleged that Nihalani routinely oversteps the boundaries of his duties, specifically targeting films that appear to be contrary to his proclaimed agenda to ‘clean up’ Indian cinema.

The truth is that the film industry and the journalists who write about cinema in India have run out of words to condemn to the arbitrary demands of Nihalani’s Censor Board.

Nihalani, a film producer with a chequered history of making sleazy, B-grade Hindi films, has been insisting since his appointment in January 2015 that he is merely following the rules.

The rules, in this case, refer to the provisions laid down under the Cinematograph Act, 1952, particularly clause (1) under section 5B, which allows for a film to be denied a certificate if, in the opinion of the board, it goes against “the interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.”

The vague wording of the law empowers members of the board to interpret and apply the law according to their personal sensibilities.

With his latest stunt, Nihalani seems to be smirking and attempting to prove a point: that India is a conservative country where families do not want their 12-year-old children to hear the word ‘intercourse’.

Sure, in most parts of the country, that may be true. With this poll, especially when he talks about getting votes on Twitter, Nihalani seems to be trying to tell us: “Look, the India you liberal, educated elites live in is not the real India. I have to certify films for the real India, where sex is a taboo. Do you get me now?”

Does he have a point? Well, yes, from his perspective, maybe he does. One may argue that 12-year-old kids know quite a lot about sex. That, however, does not mean the barriers of hypocrisy have broken down at home or between generations.

It is a Sardar-Patel-statue-sized irony that the people of a nation who may just be having the most amount of sex in the world still can’t get themselves to talk about it.

Anecdotally, many of us know that we live in a society where people on dating apps like Tinder may also feign ignorance about sex and sexuality when it comes to family or work settings. This is the rule, not the exception.

A former Censor Board official once told me about an angry letter written by a senior member of parliament in his 60s, who felt embarrassed to watch the Aamir Khan-produced, expletive-and-innuendo-laden comedy Delhi Belly (2011) in a theatre with his 40-something son, and chastised the board for clearing such a film.

Hang on, does this mean that Nihalani is… right? Nope. Not at all.

India is projected to become the world’s most populous country by 2022 (if that isn’t already true). It is a Sardar-Patel-statue-sized irony that the people of a nation who may just be having the most amount of sex in the world still can’t get themselves to talk about it.

As we attempt to navigate this catch-22, we could do worse than to learn from the experience of the United States, home to a filmmaking industry that successfully transitioned from a prudish, restrictive public morality that dominated in the early 20th century, to the relatively permissive regime that is in place today.

Censorship in Hollywood originated in the late 1920s as a response to a growing public outcry against supposed ‘immorality’ in movies. The Production Code, an unofficial list of “don’ts and be carefuls” that incorporated elements of Catholic theology, was enforced by a self-regulating certification authority constituted by the film industry.

However the Code was significantly weakened in subsequent decades as films like Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) bypassed it and released without certification to thunderous box office and critical response.

By the time the summer of love rolled around in 1967, bringing hippie culture and liberal attitudes towards sex into the mainstream, the Code had been killed off under the weight of a massive shift in public opinion. The lack of a governmental stick to enforce its sanctions meant that the American film certification body offered enough wiggle room to allow movie-goers to vote with their wallets.

Censorship is a hairy issue that will forever inspire debate, and India is hardly the only country that restricts filmmakers and freedom of expression (see: Iran). Besides nudity and sex, violence is a subject of concern all around the world (barring South Korea, apparently), as are films that depict political or religious events and figures. To say we don’t need any certification authority at all in India, or anywhere else, is to subscribe to an unrealistically utopian view of the world.

However, the damage Nihalani is doing by maintaining the status quo of silence with regards to sex is something that must be opposed because not only does it curb freedom of expression, it also contributes to a continued infantilisation of a populace and hinders the evolution of public maturity. In the age of the Internet, to say that 12-year-olds cannot hear the word ‘intercourse’ on television because it’ll make family dinner awkward is to contribute to a broken, flawed system that is unbecoming of a country that calls itself a democracy.

Healthy attitudes towards sexuality are the need of the hour in a country that suffers from rigid patriarchal mindsets, rampant violence against women, and a serious population problem. While the onus for that change ultimately lies on the education system, it does the youth of the country no favours to have a body regulating mass media consumed by hundreds of millions as per the whims and fancies of one man.

What Nihalani doesn’t seem to realise is that his eccentric decisions, reported widely by our media to capitalise on instant social media outrage, are creating dangerous precedents that could set us all back by decades

It all boils down to this, Mr Nihalani: if you claim you’re just doing your job, would you like to do it in a way that history remembers you as someone who brought about positive change? Or would you like to be just a footnote on a Wikipedia page as a draconian administrator and government stooge who fought to protect prudery at the cost of freedom of expression?

Contact Suprateek Chatterjee at Arundhati.Dahiya+suprateekchatterjee@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.