‘Censoring’ Government from Film Censorship

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 A comprehensive review of the outdated cinematograph law is the need of the hour. Appointing another new committee to suggest mere tweaking of rules and procedures is only an eye wash. If the government is genuinely reformist, it should transform the ‘ruling party-controlled’ Censor Board into a professional, autonomous and accountable body.

The constitution of the expert committee headed by Shyam Benegal has once again raised hopes about overhauling of the outdated film regulation regime in the country. But, these hopes were short-lived as one looks at the limited mandate given to the committee. After the much-hyped announcement about the setting up of Benegal Committee to ‘revamp’ film censorship, few days back, a casually-drafted, header-less, unsigned communiqué appeared on the websites of Ministry of I&B and NFDC which revealed the committee’s terms of reference:

  • To study the extant procedures with respect to certification process being followed by CBFC
  • To study various directives of Courts with respect to certification of films
  • To recommend a broad guideline / procedure which will set principles which shall guide the Board with respect to certification of films
  • To study the existing staffing pattern of CBFC

One thing which was repeatedly emphasized in the one-page communiqué was that everything – from Committee’s recommendations to suggestions of film viewers – should be “within the ambit of existing Cinematograph Act, Rules and Guidelines”! This means the committee can, at best, suggest amendments to the Cinematograph (Certification) Rules, 1983, so as to streamline the internal functioning of Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and lay down some principles to give contemporary interpretation to the ‘film certification guidelines’.

The Mukul Mudgal Committee

In 2013, the Mukul Mudgal committee gave its 17-page report along with a draft Cinematograph Bill, 2013. Except few new suggestions such as introduction of 12+, 15+ ratings in place of ‘U/A’, pre-screening of lyrics, expanding the jurisdiction of appellate tribunal etc., there is nothing modern about Mudgal recommendations. The committee retained the regressive ‘govt.-controlled’ scheme of colonial era. It didn’t venture to rectify the fundamental defect in the present scheme, i.e., absolute lack of autonomy for CBFC and hegemony of central government on almost all aspects of film censorship i.e., appointing ‘their own men’ to man the Board and advisory panels, ‘revisional’ powers over the decisions of ‘statutory’ board, ‘notifying’ film certification guidelines etc. Surprisingly, there was no discussion at all on the way the committee sought to perpetuate the same old set-up, characterised by overwhelming State dominance and organised patronage. Seen in this backdrop, the narrow remit given to the Benegal committee is particularly appalling and reflects the insincere and ad hocist approach of government towards film censorship reform.

No debate on the fundamental flaw

Debates on film censorship in India had been sporadic and mostly forgotten by the end of the day. Often, they are centred around emotional statements by film celebrities or occasioned by some controversies e.g., ‘Viswaroopam’ episode in 2013 or the recent ‘national-level’ debate on pruning a kissing scene in the ‘U/A’-rated film, ‘Spectre’. A sustained and meaningful debate on the core issues affecting film censorship is conspicuous by its absence.

What is fundamentally wrong with Indian film censorship was painstakingly analysed by Khosla Committee, way back in 1969 itself. It recommended a clear cut remedy too, i.e., to make the film regulation board, ‘independent’ and ‘autonomous’. The Khosla report, which even won the accolades of Supreme Court, concluded thus: “…Here we may reiterate the most important defect, namely, the lack of responsibility which the present system entails…The rigidity of a code drawn up by a superior power, the inhibition and lack of flexibility…constant fear of interference…are features which not only destroy the efficiency of the board but arouse almost universal condemnation of its decisions. It is important, therefore, that state censorship should be exercised…by an independent body which has been given sufficient authority and a sufficient sense of responsibility to deal with the matter finally and irrevocably.” Given the reluctance of successive governments in parting with their control over a ‘cultural institution’ like Censor Board, it is hardly surprising that the Khosla recommendations were completely ignored and died their natural death. Interestingly, for an RTI query, the Ministry of I&B replied that it doesn’t have a copy of Khosla report!

In 2013, in the wake of controversy around certification of an adult comedy (‘Grand Masti’), Smt. Leela Samson, former chairperson, CBFC, in an e-mail to the then Minister, I&B aired her exasperation about the quality of ‘advisory panel’ members who actually certify films. The poignant words of Smt. Samson sum up the rot in the present system: “…the men and women who certify these films are…chosen, not by the CBFC – but by the Ministry every two years…There are no doubt, a few educated among them in every region, but 90% of them are uneducated and an embarrassment to us. They cannot read nor write, cannot sign their names on the forms, leave alone read the script of the film…When I mentioned this to the Hon’ble Minister, he said that they too were representative of this nation and no change could be implemented…the Ministry maintains its prerogative to appoint such members as they deem fit and watch as our Board time and again has taken the blame for insensitive certification…Perhaps it is time for the Ministry…to tell the nation and our Board why incompetent, insensitive and uneducated people are certifying our films.”

All this only mean that the present debate on film censorship needs an urgent course correction. The core agenda, both for government and film industry, should be to dwell upon how to ensure an arm’s-length relationship between the government and the Film regulation Board, how to make the Board ‘qualified’, ‘autonomous’ and ‘accountable’, both in functional and financial terms and how to put in place appropriate appellate mechanisms, both for the film makers and anyone aggrieved by the decisions of the Board.

The road towards film ‘Classification’

As discussed above, on one hand, there is zero discussion on removing the undesirable stranglehold of government on film censorship. On the other extreme, there is talk, including a reference by the Minister, I&B, about moving into the era of film ‘classification’ as opposed to film ‘censorship’, as practiced in countries like US, UK etc.

In most developed countries, the emphasis is on ‘classifying’ a film in a particular category based on age and media format (Cinema/TV/Home video etc.) rather than to ‘scissor out’ scenes that deemed ‘objectionable’. Even the film classification boards in these countries are not statutory but established by film industry as a voluntary, self-regulatory measure. Most importantly, they have evolved over a period of time and shaped by the political, social and cultural climate of each country. This ‘self-regulation’ or classification approach is, inter alia, premised on a highly aware audience and an effective parental guidance for children. This could work in those countries where almost entire population is literate, highly aware and the social fabric is largely uniform in terms of language, religion and culture. In contrast, whether India – where a large population is still illiterate, where the social and cultural milieu is highly diversified, religious and communal sentiments run high, especially on freedom of expression issues – is ready to embrace this ultra-liberal model of film classification is a question that calls for a deeper analysis.

In India, the cinema theatres are notorious for selling ‘A’ film tickets to even under-age children. Admittedly, there is no proper check on this nor this is a priority issue for anyone for various reasons. The level of parental guidance available for children in developed countries is no way comparable to what is presently possible in India. After these many decades, there is no awareness about film ratings even among educated audience. No one can make out anything from the obscure ‘censor certificate’ flashed for few seconds in English/Hindi before every film. Not many know what ‘U/A’ exactly means. While some know it means something like ‘parental guidance’, most don’t know for which age cohort of children it applies (below twelve years). Our Cinematograph Act even doesn’t ‘know’ that a thing called ‘television’ exists, not to speak of having separate ratings for films meant for television telecast or for playing as home video.

Thus, switchover to ‘classification’ regime can’t be effected overnight and should first be preceded by a well-orchestrated campaign through print and electronic media to educate lay audience about various categories of film ratings, especially in local languages, proper sensitization and regulation of theatres etc. Further, the ‘Censor Board’, which is often criticised for its lax and inward-looking bureaucratic approach has to come out of its shell. It should reach out to audience with a vibrant online presence via social media, user-friendly website, mobile app etc. so that film ratings are made easily accessible and popularized. It should also seek continuous feedback from audience on classification and other decisions of the Board. It is immensely important to note here that all this pro-activeness and confident approach is impossible without giving the film regulation body, the much-needed autonomy it deserves. Without conferring such independence and without undertaking aforesaid ‘audience-empowering’ measures, any talk about moving to the era of ‘classification’, expecting the Board to be ‘controversy-free’ sounds naive.

Time to question the Government

Even after 103 glorious years of Indian Cinema, if the government still wants to cling to the colonial and ‘government-controlled’ scheme of film censorship, it is really unfortunate. More painful is the silence and indifference of film industry, media and civil society in questioning government for perpetuating this glaring anomaly. If the film fraternity – which is almost always in a ‘Scrap-the-Censor Board’ mode – is genuinely concerned about modernizing the film censorship, they should raise their voice collectively and may even lobby for nothing short of a comprehensive review of cinematograph law and not settle for the proposed cosmetic changes in rules which is but another round of eye wash. Going a step further, the film industry itself can take lead and come out with a modern and workable draft film regulation bill by studying international best practices and assessing Indian realities.

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