As its recent actions illustrate, the certification body is an anachronism in a modern democracy like India

Just a few days ago, India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) asked the directors of Bengali film ‘Dekh Kemon Lage’ to mute the word ‘Radha’ in one of the songs in the feature film. The government body headed by Pahlaj Nihalani, who happens to be the director and producer of, among others, “Mera Desh Mahaan”, a music video as a tribute to Prime Minister Modi. A few weeks ago, the CBFC, popularly known as the Censor Board, objected to certain words in a documentary on Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, directed by Suman Ghosh. The board wanted to mute words such as ‘cow’, ‘Hindutva’ “Hindu India”, “Hindutva view of India” and “Gujarat” from the documentary ‘The Argumentative Indian’ if the film was to get a clean ‘U’ (view-for-all) certificate. Ghosh and the producers of the documentary said they would fight the decision. Some time ago, again, the Censor Board hesitated to clear the film “Lipstick Under My Burkha” by Alankrita Shrivastava. The ‘bold’ film was nearly rejected by the CBFC and the producers approached the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). FCAT finally asked the CBFC to grant the film an ‘A’ certificate.

But not everyone picks up a battle with the board. Many choose to give in to the pressure. After Nihalani took up the reins of the CBFC, several controversies erupted, causing enough headache for filmmakers in the country, triggering a debate on whether the very existence of the CBFC has become an aberration to the idea of India itself. Is the Censor Board doing the right thing by introducing stricter rules and guidelines? It’s history shows the other way.

The CBFC is a statutory body functioning under the Information and Broadcasting ministry. It regulates public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act of 1952. All films need the CBFC certification to be screened in the country. There is no doubt that the body, which still goes by rules set almost six decades ago and rarely updated, needs a revamp and it should be functioning like a modern art certification body rather than a censoring apparatus. In 2016, a special committee headed by filmmaker Shyam Benegal had suggested that CBFC should limit its functioning to issuing certificates to movies and not impose censoring. The Benegal committee was set up to “suggest a holistic framework for certification of films and recommend a framework that would provide efficient and transparent user-friendly services”. The committee had put forward several radical suggestions in sync with the modern times, but the recommendations are still lying in the Government’s cold storage.

Benegal recently told media that he was hopeful that the Modi government would push the much required revamping of the CBFC and amend the archaic Cinematograph Act 1952. Interestingly, the Benegal committee had urged the CBFC to introduce a new category called ‘adult with caution’ and classifying the existing categories into UA 12+ and UA 15+ to make the content accessible to appropriate audience. But it seems Benegal is hoping against hope. Nihalani has told media that Benegal is not demanding the “right things”. He prefers cuts while certifying film. Nihalani doesn’t buy the idea that the CBFC is just a certifying body. He says it is a wrong interpretation by “unknowledgeable people”. According to him, there’s an act and rulebook also, “which you can’t forget”.

There is a draft bill aimed at amending the Cinematography Act has proposed to curtail the CBFC’s powers to make filmmakers modify or delete content. But filmmakers suspect it won’t see the light of the day anytime soon given the current regime’s penchant for controlling art expressions. They cite the global best practices in this regard. Censorship rules as they are practised today are anti-modern and archaic. The new recommendations follow the norms of the American Association, which are flexible and suitably democratic. Of course, there should be warnings of all sorts — of bad language, violence, sex and similar content, but ultimately it should be left to the viewer’s discretion whether to watch the film or not, the State should stay away from any kind of control or interference.

Filmmakers believe censoring impinges on the freedom of expression and is not suitable in a plural democracy such as India. In fact, former Union I&B minister M Venkaiah Naidu, who is set to become the country’s Vice-President, had said the Government agreed with most recommendations of the Benegal report and would make the amendments. But now with Naidu gone and Modi loyalist Smriti Irani, known for her conservative views on art and education, taking charge as the new I&B minister, what will happen to the idea of modernising the CBFC can be anybody’s guess.


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