M For Menstruation Gets Phullu An A for Adult-Only Certificate

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), Government of India, has deemed the Hindi film Phullu, fit only for "adult" viewing because its story revolves around menstruation.

In its wisdom, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), Government of India, has deemed the Hindi film Phullu, fit only for “adult” viewing because its story revolves around menstruation.

The CBFC chief, Pahlaj Nihalani, has defended this decision saying that young people in India aren’t ready yet to talk openly about “that time of the month”, leave alone watch a film about it.

Funny, tragic, outrageous, anachronistic. Add worse descriptors if you like, and they will fit. Even a couple of years ago, these responses would have sufficed, because underlying the outrage would be the hope that those in charge would learn the ropes and stop fooling around.

However, after three years in government, high officials should not expect any longer to be spoon-fed the basics of well-established feminist and freedom of expression arguments.

We must recognise a pattern when it is staring us in the face. Please read the CBFC’s ruling against Phullu in tandem with the outrageous (what else?) recommendations listed in the recently released booklet ‘Mother and Child Care’, by the Ayush Ministry which advises pregnant women to avoid eating meat and not have sex.

Repeated instances of poor decisions by all manner of institutions reveal a much deeper problem, which are way less joke-worthy, and need serious enquiry.

So what goes wrong with a Pahlaj Nihalani? Why does he repeatedly need to be educated, why do his attitudes need regular reconstruction?

Or what goes wrong with a Yogi Adityanath when he does his flop show with the anti-Romeo squad? Or the Ayush Ministry with its rank prescriptions for pregnant women?

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Or for that matter, what on earth went wrong with Narendra Modi himself, with the demonetisation debacle, that is now deemed as a fruitless exercise even by BJP supporters? Or the beef ban?

The influence of regressive ideology, of which there is remarkable evidence, could partly explain poor decisions. In May 2003, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj made the politically pragmatic decision to impose a ban on condom advertising on Doordarshan (India’s government founded public service broadcaster). In 2009, a parliamentary committee led by BJP veteran Venkaiah Naidu decided that sex education was “against the ethos of our society and would uproot the cultural values we’ve cherished since the Vedic Age.”

However, if we give the government the benefit of doubt—discounting the possibility of any unfortunate influence of ideology in all cases—we are left with two possible reasons:

First, poor decisions and bad judgement can be put down to sheer lack of capacity to rationally process evidence, which it may well be.

But let us not forget, that the Indian governance system, circuitous though it may be, is designed to factor in individual variations in capacity, by encumbering due process with multiple layers of consultation and approvals. This minimises the influence of any single individual’s poor capacity on critical decisions that have the potential to influence large numbers of people’s lives.

Second, if despite these checks and balances, there is a deluge of poor decisions, the malaise points to a worse diagnosis than the innocent one of lack of capacity.

We may be witnessing a new norm—the rise of the powerful, autocratic, whimsical lone decision-maker with an infantile delusion of greatness and an incurable degree of deafness for good advice. Much like a lone wolf attacker.

Visualise for a moment that such a person was the pilot of your aircraft. No don’t, it seems catastrophic even in imagination.

Coming back to the flavour of the day, Pahlaj Nihalani—would he have made a more respectable decision and not given an “adult” certificate to Phullu had he been aware of, or provided with, the following three data points?

  • The National Family Heath Survey reports that 39% women and 40% men in Bihar reported underage marriage, and in Andhra Pradesh, a state with better development indices, nearly 33% women and 24% men reported underage marriage. In all, nearly 12 million Indian children were married before the age of 10 years (Census of India 2011).
  • Marriage aside, leading newspapers reported in 2015 that according to a survey, urban youth have their “first brush” with sex at 14.
  • In a 2014 survey in Delhi by the government run Safdarjung Hospital, more than 80% of the parents interviewed insisted that sexuality education be provided in schools and in fact be made compulsory.

Therefore, try as the CBFC will, viewers below the age of 18, who will not be allowed to watch this film, are accessing information on sex and sexuality from cousins, friends, aunts and of course, on the internet.

And they usually get the wrong information, leading to an array of problems including unwanted pregnancies, and even suicides.

Poor decisions by some people in power can play out with blood in the backyards of many. Remember the pilot who flew a plane full of children into the Alps, killing everyone?

Youth-friendly health services and service providers, and measures such as comprehensive sexuality education are almost missing in India. According to a recent UNFPA report, this has a direct negative impact on the prospects of reaping demographic dividend that India so desperately seeks.

Every young girl and boy, anywhere in the world, and in India, happens to have a right to know about important matters like menstruation and allied matters such as sex and sexuality, despite our collective squeamishness in this regard.

Can the CBFC please do some homework, nominate a few young people, maybe some experts on adolescent health, and make their decision-making process more fool-proof, please?

First published here.

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