Story of a Script writer: Shriprakash
On one of my frequent visits to the Naaz cinema compound, Lamington road I ran into an old friend of mine Ali Abbas who now works as an Assistant Director in Bombay. Over lunch, he explained that for the past week or so he had been meeting a particular censor 'agent' regarding a feature's clearance at the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) office in Valkeshwar. Since my notions of the procedures involved in actually obtaining a censor certificate for a film were rudimentary, I asked Ali to elaborate. He said that he could do better than that - he could introduce me to the agent who would then clarify everything for me. Ali made the necessary phone calls and arranged a meeting with Mr. Shripati Mishra. I was surprised that he was so eager to meet me. I had anticipated reluctance if not an outright refusal on his part. When I met him I laughed and mentioned this almost immediately. Mr. Mishra himself was surprised that I would think so: "Why shouldn't I tell you my story? I have almost nothing to be ashamed of. The only thing I won't talk about is my script idea which I want to make with Amitabh and his son."
Shripati came to Bombay in 1993 from Champaran in Bihar: "Everyone who comes to Bombay has a hero from his part of the world who made it big in the movies. These stories are very important in our village. For example, everyone in my circle of friends knows in the greatest detail, the story behind Manoj Bajpai and Prakash Jha. They are from our village and their lives are chronicled in the greatest detail and passed from generation to generation."
When he arrived in Bombay, Shripati knew no one except a distant cousin who worked at a child care utilities service. He worked there as a delivery boy for close to 16 months. At which point he felt that he needed to work within the industry if he had to get anywhere in life. A friend had mentioned certain vacancies within the trade journal Complete Cinema. Soon he was a delivery boy with the magazine. "Yet, this was a very different job from the previous one," Shripati clarified. "Trade magazines are not sold in magazine-newspaper outlets. They are only made available to people within the industry who subscribe to it. Complete Cinema, also claimed to have the second largest circulation within Bombay. Initially, Mr. Mahindra, the secretary, offered me a desk job as a clerk: organizing papers, serving chai paani etc. But I insisted that I wanted to be a delivery boy even though it was not as prestigious as being a clerk. I insisted: I only want the delivery boy job. That way I would know where everyone lived - producers, distributors, actors, directors. I would know all the important offices within the industry. With a little luck, I would meet someone important while I was delivering the magazine and who knows, anything could happen."
"I had no place to stay so I stayed within the office premises and read the back issues of the magazine at night. That's why my English is so good. That's why I got my next job as a censor script writer. Let me clarify at this stage, I'm not an agent; I am a censor script writer."
In 1997 delivering trade magazines, he ran into Mr. Vijay Kumar, a censor script writer, in his office behind the Naaz cinema compound. Mr. Kumar at that stage was looking for an assistant and offered Shripati a job. It seemed enticing: the pay was almost three times what he was making at Complete Cinema and he would get to watch and re-script films. However, Shripati was reluctant to tell his bosses at Complete Cinema. He felt indebted to them. They had let him stay in the office, on many occasions brought him dinner and breakfast and even payed for medical emergencies on two occasions. He felt they would be very angry if he told them that he was quitting for another job.
"Finally I decided to use emotional blackmail. I told Mr. Mahindra that I was needed back at my village in Bihar to look after my farm because my brother was dying. My plan was to disappear in the city. There was no way they would know if I was in my village or not. I would quietly work for Mr. Vijay Kumar in Valkeshwar and Lamington Road and never go near Bandra-Khar where the Complete Cinema office was located. Years later I was caught by the delivery boy who worked under me but by then it didn't matter."
Shripati worked under Mr. Vijay Kumar for close to three years. He learned to draft the various letters of authority to the Regional Officer, declarations and prepare cheques depending on the length of the script: at a rate of hundred rupees for every 300 feet of film and an honorary cheque of 20,000 rupees made out to the Chairman of the Board.
"After that, other payments need to be made depending on the content of the film. This is a slightly complicated procedure because these are unofficial payments. You must know the various rates for people within the CBFC bureaucracy. It is crucial because many of them are responsible, in small ways, for selecting the Examining Committee (EC). The Examining Committee usually consists of five members: one officer (an employee of the CBFC Regional Office) and four selected Board members (two women and two men). The censor script writer must be able to anticipate how the film will fare with the Committee and negotiate all the payments, how and when they need to be made, before the Committee sits for the first screening. Very little damage control can be done after the Examining Committee has seen the final cut and decided on cuts/modifications etc. At that stage the film maker can do nothing but appeal to the CBFC to organize another screening for the Revising Committee which has 8 members and therefore the chances of influencing all of them are even slimmer. If the film maker is not satisfied with the Revising Committee's decisions he has the option of appealing to the Appellate Tribunal of Film Certification. At this stage, Shripati says, the censor script writer can do very little because the people involved (usually at least one High Court level judge) are outside his circumference of influence.
Shripati insists that all films that possess a certain potential for controversy( mainly sexy films and sometimes dange (riot) films) should not attract too much media coverage/attention before the first CBFC screening otherwise the committee is forced to sanction cuts irrespective of how 'sympathetic' they might be made toward the film. They usually have to make certain token cuts. The person who is instrumental in deciding the strategies for censorship to be adopted against certain films is not the Chairman as popularly perceived, but the Head Regional Officer. Of course the Head Regional Officer of Bombay is the most influential in India. The current Officer, Mr. V.K. Singla, Shripati feels, is samajhdar and not unnecessarily confrontational like his predecessor Ms. Sanjeevani Kutty.
The Programme Officer is also crucial because he/she decides the date and time for the EC screening. The Programme Officer is usually aware of two crucial things: who are the 'hard' and 'soft' members of the Board and what their respective working schedules are. If they want a film passed without too many cuts and a particular 'hard' member has been selected for the screening, the Programme Officer will deliberately schedule it at an inconvenient time for that specific member. In other words, the Officer being aware of that member's work schedule will ensure that he/she cannot make it for the screening.
For the censor script writer there are two main hurdles: getting the film passed with minimum possible cuts and ensuring it is given the desired certification (U; U/A; A). That is how they negotiate their rate with their clients. They first see how much the client is willing to pay, how soon they want the certificate, what specific certificate they want and how many cuts they are willing to go with before they decide to appeal. For Shripati it is "a make or break situation at the level of the Examining Committee. After that it is not very much in my control. Utna bhi pull nahin hai." He told me that Boom was rumoured to have been passed without cuts because 10 lakhs had been spent convincing people in the CBFC office. However, the English version had to be censored separately a week later and ran into serious problems with certain 'idealistic' members within the Board and hence was never released, even though close to 50 prints had been prepared for release within India.
While the producers' guilds such as IMPPA and AMPTPP are responsible for censoring photographs, posters, publicity stills, hoardings, music album covers, DVD and VCD covers all trailers, teasers, music/ film promos and dubbed versions of the film have to be screened by the CBFC once again even if the film has obtained a censor certificate for the final cut. This means that a Junior Regional Officer will sit through the screening alone along with the synopsis as well as the censor script of the film's final cut. The official rate to be paid for dubbed versions as well as trailers and music promos is 10,000 rupees. Above this rate the Officer might need to be 'convinced' (thandaa rakhna or baraf daalna) or if he needs to be 'hurried' (pankhaa chalaana) to meet a certain deadline.
Our discussion finally turned to the censor script writing. Shripati stressed that at the heart of the entire censorship procedure lies the script prepared by the censor script writer. "It should be detailed and complicated and not very easy to read. That is crucial." He showed me the censor script of Cold Sweat a movie that he was working on currently. It resembled a shooting script and was structured in a tabular form with each shot marked and described in the greatest detail. This was according to the rules of the Central Board of Film Certification. The shot description was divided according to action, dialogue, setting and background score. The duration of each shot had to be marked according to its reel length, its location within a specific reel and its time duration. Shripati stresses that if it's a digital film or if it's a video copy of a celluloid print then detailed timecode references need to be made. The CBFC insists that each shot however brief in duration must be documented in the script. "But of course, the ground realities are slightly different." smiles Shripati. Careful omissions, glossed over portions, unnecessary detail, emphases on portions that are likely to go down well with the Committee are staples of a censor script. Only one copy is handed to the five members. The officer in charge of the Committee usually reads through it and marks the recommended cuts/modifications on to the script itself while the movie itself is being screened. This marked script is then returned to the film maker who then assesses the situation and decides on a particular strategy. The other four members are handed booklets prepared by the censor script writer that contain a detailed synopsis and crew/cast details. Of course there can be no obvious discrepancies between the script prepared and the film screened.
Shripati Mishra since he started out on his own in 1999 has handled Guddu Dhanoa, Sunny Deol films along with ad films for EFX and Prime Focus. "In fact, I have a Limca Record," he claims "for the fastest censored film in Bombay. It was Karz- The Burden of Truth, a Sunny Deol action film. The application was filed in the morning, the script was prepared in two hours by my three assistants, the screening for the jury was in the afternoon and the certificate was issued in the evening. It is still talked about in censorship circles. Ask anyone."
However, Shripati himself claims that his specialty is C grade/ sexy films and till date he has had an impeccable record. Not one of his films has been stalled by the Board. In fact his last assignment was the latest C circuit hit in the Bombay territory called Hottest Mail. Com touted as India's first film on cyber crime. It was passed with one cut and the entire procedure from beginning to end took only five days. The other C circuit films that he will be censoring in the next two weeks are Jail Queens, Maut Ke Peeche Maut, and Kaam Ki Bhookh. He has also ventured into distribution with two friends and will be distributing these three films along with a couple of others in the next two months.
Apart from these 'sexy' films, he is currently responsible for Amu, a film about the 1984 riots which could possibly run into trouble with the Board. "Its not often that I get dange type films but my record is so good; people come to me when they anticipate trouble. Of course all the big banners don't need censor go-betweens like me. They have their own clout, their own contacts. It's only the smaller films - dange or 'sexy' - that come to me. I wish Anurag Kashyap had come to me. His is the most controversial riot film in recent times." He was referring to Black Friday that dealt with the stories behind the 1992 Bombay bomb blasts that had been stuck with the censors for over six weeks now. "He chose to go without any assistance as far as I know. Also, I have heard that his film is a little over the top. There is no way it will be passed without certain cuts."
I asked him if he had an office and he smiled and offered to show me where he was based. As we walked through the Naaz compound, he stopped to answer his phone which he had turned off for the interview. He introduced me to some of his colleagues as we continued past the building toward the Bombay Court building. Turning the corner, we stopped to order palang tor paans (bed breakers) rumoured to be laced with desi aphrodisiacs. Finally, in the parking lot he pointed at his motorcycle "That is my office."