Nothing can beat the colour and flamboyance splashed on screen in Dera Sacha Sauda leader Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s directorial debut MSG: Messenger Of God. Even the hue and cry that followed after the film was approved for release between the Central Board Of Film Certification and the central government paled in comparison to the masala overdose in the MSG trailer alone. Written, co-directed and acted in by Singh, the film was initially denied a release certificate by the Censor Board citing “content promoting blind faith” and that could hurt religious sentiments. It was referred to the Film Certificate Appellate Tribunal last Tuesday. Within 24 hours, the film was cleared, triggering mass resignations of Censor Board officials, a complete overhaul of the
board and riots in and around Singh’s headquarters in Sirsa, Haryana.
Well-known Bharatanatyam dancer Leela Samson, who has been serving as the Censor Board chief since 2011, was the first to put in her papers citing “interference and coercion” from the government and “corruption of members of the organisation”. Following suit, 12 other board members including Ira Bhaskar, M.K.Raina, Pankaj Sharma, T.G. Thayagarajan, Shaji N. Karun, Anjum Rajabali, Shubra Gupta, Nikhil Alva, Rajeev Masand, Mamang Dai, K.C. Shekhar Babu and L.K. Prabhu wrote a joint letter to the I&B Minister Of State Rajyavardjan Rathore informing him of their resignation. Although Samson denies that her exit was linked to the film in any way, the timing of these mass resignations seems more than a coincidence.
Film critic and former board member Shubra Gupta agrees that “the film was the tipping point”, but refuses to comment any further. According to sociologist Nandini Sardesai, who chaired the seven member review committee that had rejected the film, it showed Singh performing miracles and people addressing him as “bhagwan”. The committee had arrived at a “democratic and unanimous decision” and they had filed a report justifying it quoting the clauses in the 1952 Cinematograph Act. “It was surprising that the tribunal which usually takes at least 15-20 days to meet cleared the film within just 24 hours,” she says. “We were not even informed that our decision was upturned, which is why it was upsetting.” Sardesai also rubbishes the claim that the rejection was fuelled by the board’s political leanings. “The bench that watched the film consists of people from all walks of life,” she says. “We don’t even know each other and were just doing our job. So such accusations are baseless.”
The mass resignations stirred up a hornet’s nest at the centre with I&B minister Arun Jaitely hitting back with a Facebook post in which he called Samson a “non-functional Chairperson”. Countering all her allegations against the government, Jaitley said that Samson had not communicated any instance of corruption or funds shortage to him. Despite the fact that Samson and co, who were appointed by the UPA government, were on extension, no new appointments had been made till now. “In 2004, they [UPA government] dismissed the existing Censor Board headed by an eminent Film actor Anupam Kher merely on the ground that he was appointed by the earlier Government. We did not wish to do that,” wrote Jaitley, in justification to this.
On Monday, a new board with producer Pahlaj Nihalani at its head was appointed by the Modi government. Nihalani is a staunch BJP supporter and had made a video called Har Ghar Modi during the elections. The other names on the board–like Telegu actor-filmmaker Jeevitha Rajashekhar (BJP spokesperson in Telengana), Tamil playwright-actor S V Shekhar (who quit the AIADMK to join the BJP in 2013), Bengali actor George Baker (also a BJP member), actor Vani Tripathi Tikoo (BJP national secretary), Ramesh Patange (the editor of the Marathi weekly Vivek, considered the mouthpiece of the RSS) and filmmaker Ashoke Pandit (an ardent Modi supporter)–confirm a distinct saffron streak in the appointments.
“What is wrong with that?” asks a surprised Rajashekhar, who could not stop singing praises of “Modi sir” when contacted by THE WEEK. “Each member of the board is an experienced professional who has been appointed on the merit of their work. Then how does it matter which party he/she belongs to? Isn’t it enough that the work be done efficiently?.” Rajashekhar laughed off the criticisms against ‘the saffronisation’ of the board calling BJP a “100 per cent secular party” and confirmed that none of the members will mix their political ideologies with their aesthetics while reviewing films. “I feel proud of being a part of this board, which has the maximum number of members from within the industry,” she says. “This itself shows that the government has given it much thought and the selection process was a meticulous one.”
Amid all this noise, there is another debate brewing on the margins whether we, indeed, need a body like the Censor Board, given all the controversies it has courted in the recent past. The Lunchbox fame producer Guneet Monga feels that censorship in the country has become a joke. “As long as the internet is freely available, the uncut versions of all the supposedly banned films will be available all over the world,” she says. “This makes censorship and the following hue and cry an absolutely futile exercise.” While Gupta agrees saying she only favours certification of films, Sardesai feels that the Censor Board should be an autonomous body. “There should be some specific criteria for making appointing and it should not be driven by political agendas,” she says, hinting at the newly formed board. Agrees filmmaker Akhilesh Jaiswal, who debut film Mastram, a biopic on the Hindi soft-porn writer of the same name, had run into problems with the board last year: “The existence of a board is important but they need to stop imposing their personal opinions on the filmmaker and should follow common rules to certify all films.”
Although Rajashekhar promises that the new board will not show any religious or political bias, her ideas about what should be and shouldn’t be shown in films seem rigid. “Film is the most powerful art form that directly influences the society. So they need to give a good message to people,” says Rajashekhar. “Personally, I do not support overly violent or obscene content in film.” Praising films like PK, which recently met with protests from Hindu activists, Rajashekhar says that it is important to make sure that our youth gets exposed to the right things at the right age. “People may say there is sex and violence taking place around us, but there is a reason why there should be certain restrictions on films that show the same,” she says. “When we were younger, there were no pubs in Hyderabad and still we grew up happily. Now I am afraid to send my children outside because of the increased crime rates in our cities. All this is the result of being exposed to inappropriate content not only in films, but across all other media.”
As for MSG, it has been banned by the Punjab state government fearing serious law and order problems in the state, owing to apparent anti-Sikh content in the film. Sikhs from Haryana, too, are up in arms against the film’s release and following the protests, authorities have imposed prohibitory orders against mass assembly in areas around Sirsa. Looks like millions of followers of the Dera chief will have to wait longer to catch a glimpse of their “saint” swirling his hips to bhajans like Love Charger and thrashing villains on the silver screen.