If there is one thing that irks a regime — however much it may deny it and makes a virtue out of being an unsophisticated boor – it is being accused of being an unsophisticated boor.
Things have thankfully changed quite a lot since Culture, with a capital C, was the monopoly of a particular kind of aesthetics and its custodians. It was elitist, patronising, turning its nose up to popular culture, and came wrapped in expensive handlooms and was regularly seen – and seeing itself being seen — in the international film and cultural festival circuit.
Today, that brand of Culture has a name that sticks: Lutyens’ Culture — in hindsight, a curious division of the high arts and the low arts, its height being determined by the nature and class of its consumers and patrons.
Like the revenge of the nerds, however, when this social, cultural and political class started to recede into the background – rather it stood still while the rest of the world moved into the foreground – the new lot of culture-keepers who took over started having their own notions of Culture poured into the old silos built by the ancien, now un-empowdered regime.
While earlier, under Nehru-Gandhi rule and taste, cultural requirements for the masses were seen purely from the point of view of required entertainment, like gladiator fights during the Roman Empire to keep hoi polloi happy – and not bored enough to think up of dangerous stuff like insurrection. This was distinct from the finer stuff that the Culturewallas saw themselves (and were seen) hardwired to appreciate.
So Peter Brook’s theatre production of Mahabharata was the talk of the town. While Ramanand Sagar’s gaudy pre-Ekta Kapoor TV serial Ramayan was the fodder of the nation. The ban on the import of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988 during the Rajiv Gandhi government (the possession of the book itself was not banned by a ‘liberal, literate’ government, of course) after a bunch of Muslim clerics went loco, was appeasement as much of the ‘Muslim electorate’, as of the unsophisticated redneck dehati.
But in all this grand separation of Indian Culture was the nervousness of the culturati about the unwashed masses, slowly waking up to the virtues of branded soaps and deodorants, storming Lutyens’ Bastille via some cultural slight, some aesthetic transgression. Thus, the honing of that colonial device that earlier kept a colonised class in check, now being used to ostensibly keep the peace of the land, the passions of a polyphonic in check: the censor board.
Well, of course, post-Independence, the institution of the censor board would be called something suitably post-colonising – Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). This was as benign-sounding as the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. And yet, its function, over the years, has been crystal clear: to control passions from spilling over. With film being the most directly impressionable of cultural tools available to literate, literary or illiterate man, it was controlling the knobs and buttons of the CBFC that has come to become the dominant agency by which to keep the nation safe from marauding mobs and villagers with pitchforks easily susceptible to getting their sentiments hurt.
Which is when the change in the kind of people in power mirrored a change in the nature of control and censorship. If earlier, the authorities caved in to demands of ransacking goons who saw an MF Husain painting only in pornographic terms, if only to ‘keep the nation safe’, it had, of late, become an exercise in the nation’s taste-building. And no one personified this more proactively than CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani.
The litany of don’ts in movies became so long and weary that it really doesn’t bear repetition. But one of the last calls the CBFC made during his tenure that ended on Friday, was the CBFC’s objections to the words ‘cow’, ‘Gujarat’, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hindutva’ in a documentary on the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, ‘The Argumentative Indian’ that was scheduled for release last month.
That Nihalani and his cultural marms were overreaching their brief even by usual Indian standards of overreach became clear when such a film – not exactly a cinema-filler – was targeted as if the CBFC’s whole point was to search and snip, search and snip, even the most irrelevant content.
The BJP government, carrying a reputation for allowing self-styled critics to do more than air their criticism, was now really looking silly. For a country that has Internet access on their phones growing every day, that has the old divide between ‘vernacular-speakers’ and ‘English-speakers’ shrink faster than shrink-wrap, for a prime governmental body to not just play ‘kabab mein haddi’ to young Indian men and women, but also actually outdo previous regimes by engaging in ‘pre-emptive appeasement’ came across as downright boorish and uncultured.
The appointment of Prasoon Joshi, admired as a scriptwriter and lyricist, could have been the only antidote to his predecessor’s uncultured goonery. Joshi is the right person to also underline the fact that the division of high and low culture has become a false one. Perhaps, under his stewardship, the censor board will do what any modern, grown-up nation does with its film certification institution: decide what films are unsuitable for kids to watch and certify them as ‘adult’. And that’s it.