‘Probe’ Into Intimate Oppenheimer Scene and India’s Tryst With Film Censorship
Poster of Oppenheimer. Image Courtesy: Facebook
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer opened in theatres on 21 July, acquainting a whole new generation of global audiences to the scientist and the devastating bomb project he fathered. The account of the twentieth century’s troubled and charismatic scientist has generated a lot of heat worldwide, and some influential, powerful sections in India are angry for reasons Nolan may not have entirely accounted for.
The first Indian citizen to take exception to a scene in the film which references the Gita was the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Uday Mahurkar, also the founder of Save Culture Save India Foundation, who aired his anguish in an open letter to Nolan in which he objected to the referencing of Gita during a sex act. “In the scene, he is having intercourse with his girlfriend, and she is showing him the Gita. He is reciting shlokas from the Gita. This is an insult to the Gita,” Mahurkar said.
The CIC has asked for deletion of the scene from the film.
Was Mahurkar questioning the decision of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), a statutory body set up by an act of Parliament in 1952, which functions under the Information and Broadcasting Ministry? The CBFC cleared the movie with a U/A certificate—unrestricted but with parental discretion for exhibition in cinema theatres.
And, for the uninitiated, the CIC—a post set up by the Right to Information Act in 2005, is mandated to provide information on governance to the public in a transparent manner. In that sense, the body is supposed to uphold both the freedom of information and access to information.
While the irony of the head of one statutory body questioning the decision of another did not go unnoticed, others waded in. There is nothing like sex to ratchet up the heat. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur, according to sources, was furious with the decision of the Board and again, according to sources, has promised action.
Now, nobody wants to mess around with a minister who had openly threatened to shoot down people protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act passed by the Narendra Modi government three years ago.
Equal Rights Censors
Now India has a pretty healthy democratic tradition of almost anyone and everyone taking offence to a film, song, book or comment on social media. In one sense, we are all equal rights censors, and Indian laws empower us to take offence to almost everything. The courts have weighed in from time to time—sometimes upholding the freedom of expression, sometimes striking it down.
The CBFC often tries to strike a balance. The board officials revealed to this writer some time back that of the 1,700-odd films that come up for certification every year, only 90 are denied a certificate. Clearly, in the case of Oppenheimer, the CBFC members appointed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government appear to have failed. After all, Minister Thakur has promised action against officials who found nothing objectionable in the film!
If Thakur takes action, it would be a sad day for the CBFC but certainly not for the first time in its history. From the Congress days when the minister of information and broadcasting was the master of everything he purveyed, including films broadcast on TV or cinema shown in theatres, the situation is not vastly different now. The ministry continues to be the last word on middle-class morality, and some brave former CBFC chiefs have locked horns with the government in battling for freedom of expression in cinema.
From Vijay Anand, who lost his job, to Leela Samson, who had a troubled equation with the government, lone voices have stood above the din and distinguished themselves from time to time. Back in 2005, CBFC chief Sharmila Tagore had to take a call on The Da Vinci Code after several Christian organisations objected to its contents and complained to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Once the ministry assured the concerned representatives of the faith, Tagore’s Board, which had certified the film, waded in carefully.
In 2023, Reel Krishna Arrives to Restore Order
While those taking exception to the scene in Oppenheimer were predictable figures from the ruling dispensation, what has taken everyone by surprise is the sudden appearance of a voice of reason cautioning the government. A figure from the ranks of the BJP has chosen to bat for director Nolan. Former BJP Member of Parliament Nitish Bharadwaj, who played Krishna in the epic TV series Mahabharata, spoke on TV defending Oppenheimer airing verses from the Gita—even if it is in the course of sexual intercourse. Bharadwaj praised the director for his formidable repertoire, highlighting that he was no small-time figure who would deliberately stoke a controversy.
Like Krishna imparts teachings of the Gita to Arjuna in the epic, in real life, the former MP has urged Thakur not to attach too much importance to sex. “I would urge the minister to focus on the message of the Gita being addressed by Nolan,” he said. That message, Bharadwaj believes, is of the remorse Oppenheimer—the person—experiences when he confronted the destructive ability of what he had fathered.
It is hard to miss the symbolism replete in reel Krishna’s appearance on the scene. Chapter 4 of the Gita, quoting Krishna, says, “Whenever there is a decline in righteousness and an increase in unrighteousness, O Arjuna, at that time I manifest Myself on Earth.”
Now whether Bharadwaj gets an audience with Thakur, in which he is able to reason it out with the minister, only time will tell.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.
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