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Freedom of expression is as precious as freedom of a nation: Pankaja Thakur


Pankaja Thakur’s illustrious journey from taxwoman to filmmaker

 By Sunita Vijay

Former CEO of CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification), Pankaja Thakur was in the Indian Revenue Service until she opted for voluntary retirement in 2019 to become a full-fledged filmmaker. As she describes it, ‘I am looking for expression, and film is my medium.’

Her journey in films started in 2004 when she completed a Certificate Course in filmmaking from Singapore while on a sabbatical. Later, in 2009, she made a 9-minute short film, ‘The Inseparables’, which was included in the Official Selection category at the Chicago Short Film Festival and the Brussels Short Film Festival. The following year, in 2010, she was appointed the CEO of the Censor Board (CBFC) for three years.

The tenure at CBFC was challenging. With scores of crores invested in films, the producers-directors always desire an uncut version and may want to extend favours to get work done. Pankaja commented, ‘An officer lives in a glasshouse, and the reputation precedes before joining. Knowing me as a strict, honest officer, no one ever tried to pay me a bribe.’ For a demanding post like this, it’s evident that each day sprouts new dares.

The bold decisions during her tenure at CBFC were quite befitting to changing times, raising a few eyebrows and finding space in print. Pankaja asserts, ‘The CBFC stands for Central Board of Film Certification. The word ‘Censor’ is not mentioned. Hence, rating of films is necessary and a service to the audience. Every person has their own view of good and bad. Times have changed. Lovemaking scenes have changed. Violence has a new face. Every director has one’s own version of creativity, violence, drama and romance.’

Pankaja mentions that considering all such aspects, the Board rates a film. ‘For example, the list is long, I can’t name all the directors. I respect each one’s work. But say, if a film by Raju Hirani, or Sanjay Leela Bhansali, or Vishal Bhardwaj comes to me, I would feel – am I even qualified to cut this film. It’s world-class cinema they present, a piece of art. The Board rates the film and lets the audience decide what category of films they want to see.’

Pankaja has made noteworthy decisions during her tenure, such as Aarakshan, Gangs of Wasseypur, Delhi Belly, Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children, and others. ‘When Delhi Belly came for certification, I didn’t give a single cut, even though personally speaking, I felt it might have been much ahead of its times. One has to keep one’s personal morality, value systems, age, prejudices away and make an objective decision to not deprive the audience of a world-class cinema experience. The guidelines, too, are clear – a film is to be viewed in the context of the times in which it is made. One has to be in touch with world cinema, how the audience world over is viewing content and stay with the times. Plus, there are several members, so the decision is arrived at democratically.’

Pankaja throws light on the process, saying that a heterogeneous mix of members views a film before certifying. ‘We need to keep many things in mind before issuing the certificate. Disagreements arise because we have people from varied backgrounds, as the committee represents a cross-section of society. There will be housewives, doctors, nuclear scientists, media persons, filmmakers and others to give their free views before reaching any conclusion.’

Lately, the Centre has released the draft Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill 2021 that proposes to amend the Cinematograph Act of 1952 with provisions that will give the Centre “revisionary powers” and enable it to “re-examine” films already cleared by the CBFC. Pankaja shares her views, ‘CBFC should be the final authority on film certification. This aligns with the Central Government’s policy of ‘maximum governance, minimum government’. In a democratic country like ours, there is no scope for centralisation of power to this extent. The proposed amendment to the Cinematograph Act seeks to restore the revisionary powers of the Union Government that were struck down by the Supreme Court two decades ago.’

She further adds, ‘It is undesirable on many counts. It is against the freedom of expression. A specialised body that works on film certification, doing a good job – why must its power be curtailed? This will do more harm to the government than to filmmakers. The film industry is resilient; it has survived many odds in the past. I am sure it will survive this period too. It is to take the powers away from CBFC. I am very hopeful that government will reconsider its decision.’

Pankaja states that CBFC is an autonomous and competent body. Its functioning should reflect this. Narrating an incident, she adds, ‘Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children came for certification to the Board. There was a scene where Mrs Gandhi was shown in an unflattering way. There was a buzz in media that the Board will take away that scene. There were other subtle pressures from political parties. We didn’t give a single cut. Later the media and audience admired the Board for taking the decision, and credit was given to the government for not interfering in the Board’s matter. Deepa Mehta even hailed the government through an email for letting this body be autonomous.’

Pankaja throws light on how a film (especially one with bold scenes) is rated, ‘If a film is made to evoke the right emotions, I feel no one will have any problem. The filmmaker’s intention, camera angles, duration of a scene, say it all, what it wants to convey, whether it is required in the film or is for mere titillation. We do ask the filmmaker – what do you want to say? If a scene after a certain point doesn’t remain part of the story but is infused for mere eroticism, then we look into it.’

She adds, ‘Feedback on social media is considered before taking a balanced view on certification. There is diversity in the class of film makers, with each having their own style and method to present a film. There are movies of different flavours, and numerous directors present the same emotions and reactions in their quintessential style. At times, it is a challenge to categorise them under a certain grade. The band is wide.’

In 2016, she made a short film called ‘The Guide’, which premiered at the Dharmshala International Film Festival (DIFF) and was later screened at many other festivals, including the Indian Film Festival Stuttgart. The film is available on YouTube.
Currently, she is developing a feature film for producer Shikha Sharma Ahluwalia of Radiant World. It is a love story with a strong message on river conservation.

Pankaja was married to actor Narendra Jha but she lost him to a sudden heart attack. Narendra Jha acted sensitively and carried a magnetic persona. Along with his films like Haider, he also played the lead in Viraam, shot in Uttarakhand in 2017. Hari Mehrotra produced the film. Actor Satish Sharma of Dehradun played a vital role in that film.

Pankaja Thakur during her visit to Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh with her late actor husband Narendra Jha, during one of their trips to Uttarakhand.