Much like every film certification board in the world, the one in India is supposed to certify a film, thereby judging the kind of audience that should watch it. If it gets a “U” certificate, then everyone can watch the film. If it gets a “U/A” certificate, then the film can be viewed by underage kids if they are in the presence of an adult. The “A” certificate means that only adults can watch them, i.e., 18 years of age and above. Then there’s an “S” certificate, which means restricted access and is reserved for special cases only. Now, the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) is governed by acts and rules dating back to the 1950s and 1980s. In the past, it was used quite smartly so as to not hamper the artistic vision of filmmakers and leave it to the audience to judge their work. Things changed, and this board turned into the moral police and started demanding cuts, disclaimers, blurring of frames, muting expletives, and obstructing moving images with black bars. There was some pushback. But since the system pursued its aim to infantilize the Indian audience, after a point, we gave up. And that has led to the butchered version of Oppenheimer.
Written and directed by Christopher Edward Nolan, Oppenheimer tells the story of the titular theoretical physicist as he goes from being a student with murderous intentions to a cheating husband, the father of the atomic bomb, an anti-national, and a broken husk of a man filled with regret. Based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus, the biopic aims to highlight Oppenheimer’s genius, his interest in creating something exceptional, his patriotism, his penchant for charity, and his ability to stick to his ideals regardless of the circumstances. But instead of exclusively glorifying him, the film delves into his infidelity, his arrogance, and his martyr complex, which he thinks absolves him of his sins. In addition to that, Nolan tries to paint a nuanced portrait of Oppenheimer’s life by showing the kind of relationship he had with his family, his friends, his love interests, and his colleagues, and how all of their lives were irrevocably changed due to his actions. However, to truly understand these complexities, you have to immerse yourself in the story, in the emotions, and in Nolan’s vision—something that is made impossible by the tampering with the film by the CBFC.
I risk running into spoiler-filled territory if I start to describe how Oppenheimer has been hacked up, so I won’t do that. If you think that this is a pretty straightforward biopic about detonating the atomic bomb and hence can’t be spoiled, it’s not. Nolan, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and editor Jennifer Lame have gone to great lengths to differentiate between the factual recollection of Oppenheimer’s life and the comparatively memory-based recollection of his journey. The black-and-white scenes, titled “Fusion,” are fact-based, and the ones in color, titled “Fission,” are rather memory-based. And the juxtaposition of these color-coded conversations is supposed to give a somewhat complete picture of Oppenheimer’s problematic rise and Lewis Strauss’ jealousy and eventual betrayal. But regardless of the color, all of these scenes have a very distracting “Smoking Kills” sign on them. Since the characters smoke every two seconds, that sign keeps blinking, thereby completely breaking the sense of immersion. I am aware that smoking is harmful. I know that Julius Robert Oppenheimer died of throat cancer because he was a chain smoker. I can both see and hear the hideous “No Smoking” advertisement before the beginning of the movie and during the interval. What’s the point of putting that disclaimer there? This question goes out to the CBFC for making such a demand and to the distributors and producers for agreeing to the demands.
You know what? You’ll probably get used to the anti-smoking sign. But what about the black bars, the blurring, and the weirdly zoomed-in camera angles to mask the nudity? Yes, that’s right! There are black bars on the frame during some very pivotal moments where Nolan illustrates the concepts of creation and destruction and visualizes the level of disgust Kitty Oppenheimer felt towards Julius and how exposed Julius felt while being questioned about his relationship with Jean Tatlock. Those moments are also a reminder of how Oppenheimer misused his intellect and led to the death of a woman who had a whole life ahead of her. None of that is evident in this “family-friendly” version of Nolan’s film, though. Our view is obstructed by a panel of people who are against cinema, people who are against freedom of expression, and people who think they are above Nolan (which, FYI, they are not). It’s ironic that Oppenheimer is about creating something substantial, provocative, disturbing, and life-changing and then watching it be misused in such a way that its consequences are felt to this day. I can’t even begin to imagine how Nolan, Murphy, Pugh, Blunt, and all those who have tirelessly worked on this magnum opus would feel if they laid their eyes on this Indian version of the film. It’s disrespectful. It’s disgusting. It’s repugnant.
I am well aware of the hordes of people who think that adult scenes shouldn’t exist in movies. I am sure that some people will say that they could’ve just cut out those scenes instead of covering them up with black bars, black VFX, and blurs. And I am also sure that some will say that the distasteful meddling doesn’t take up the whole movie, and the rest of it is just fine. Firstly, if you don’t want explicit scenes in movies, don’t watch movies with such scenes. You can watch the ones that don’t have them. Websites like IMDb have parental guides that tell you if a movie does or doesn’t have anything explicit in it. Read it and decide for yourself. Who are you to tell me that I shouldn’t watch a adult scene that has been put there by the director for the reason that he deems creative? Who are you to stop me from deciding if said creative reason is valid or not? Secondly, if you are cutting out scenes from movies, you are hindering the vision of the director. What’s the point of releasing such a film? Just let it be, or don’t release the film at all. Thirdly, if you are okay with some censorship, you are giving the thumbs-up to all censorship. You are saying that it’s alright to fool around with a filmmaker’s work. Based on what? Some misplaced sense of moral superiority?
There’s the irony again! A significant chunk of Oppenheimer is about ego and morality. Men all over the globe wage war against each other and pat themselves on the back for creating something insanely destructive. With time, things change, and those acts of heroism are considered war crimes. Oppenheimer’s decisions and actions are judged by a group of people who probably haven’t seen the inside of a lab. Going by the portrayals of Pash, Borden, Nichols, Robb, Gray, and, of course, Strauss, they were involved in dubious activities themselves. But since it was easy to dunk on Oppenheimer, given his association with the atomic bomb, they did it. That’s not to say that Oppenheimer didn’t have a sense of moral superiority. However, as per the subjective iteration of the events, he regretted doing what he did while the others didn’t. So, do you see the parallels between this commentary on ethics and virtue and how it is applicable to the aforementioned censorship? Those who are making judgment calls from their ivory towers have hands that aren’t clean. They are allowing propaganda films to promote all kinds of discrimination and then beaming it into every household in the country. Then what gives them the right to decide what should stay and what should go from a film by someone as significant as Christopher Nolan?
Even though I have expressed my frustration and anger towards the concerned authorities for absolutely ruining Oppenheimer, I still don’t think it’s enough. I adore Nolan’s work. I was extremely excited to watch this film. And I can’t digest the fact that the experience of witnessing a Nolan film for the first time has been tarnished in such a heinous fashion. I can’t in good conscience recommend this to anyone residing in India. If you live in some other country where the certification board doesn’t consider itself to be the censor board, please go and watch it, and feel free to share your thoughts with us.