India's chief film censor was arrested Tuesday on accusations he solicited bribes to speed a film through the strict, laborious process of keeping profanity, violence and hints of sexuality from Indian cinemas.
The norms of Bollywood film content are prudish in comparison to Hollywood. The Central Board of Film Certification is legally empowered to protect audiences from content deemed overly stimulating, so open-mouthed kissing is mostly taboo, and films with graphic content can be barred completely. The approval process can be slow, with multiple rounds of cuts sometimes demanded.
Police said certification board CEO Rakesh Kumar was charged by a Mumbai court with soliciting payments in return for speeding up the approval for a regional film from the central India state of Chhattisgarh. Investigators arrested two other men last week in a sting operation in which the suspects allegedly sought 70,000 rupees, or about $1050, on Kumar's behalf.
The Bollywood film industry is worth more than $3 billion a year, and with some certification cases lasting more than a year, it's widely assumed that bribes occasionally speed things along.
"Some films get passed very quickly because they oil the wheels, but some get stuck," said Anand Patwardhan, a documentary filmmaker who has fought repeated court cases with the censors.
Filmmakers and critics said the board had become more liberal and efficient in recent years, and that Kumar's appointment in January ushered in a return to the board's more conservative attitude. Kumar told the Mumbai Mirror newspaper that month that local media directors were "pushing the envelope too far."
Formerly a senior state railway official, Kumar had no previous experience with cinema, and some on the board of directors opposed Kumar's appointment.
"I said from the beginning he was not appropriate for the job," board chairman Leela Samson said. "Why should (the film industry) put up with a man who has no empathy for the industry?"
Samson said she wouldn't be surprised if others paid to speed their film's certification, but said she doubted many would to get more adventurous material approved.
"There's no need to bribe anybody," Samson said. "If they want out-of-turn special treatment, that's where the corruption comes in."
The board recently launched an online application system in an attempt to eliminate opportunities for bribery.
Many in India's vibrant movie industry see the censorship board as an outdated, restrictive and bureaucratic irritation and regularly push for censors to allow more.
Patwardhan, the documentary filmmaker, complained that the board charges a fee even to consider a film. "We shouldn't have to pay our own hangmen," he said.