The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is mandated with the task of certifying films for public viewing under the provisions of The Cinematograph Act, 1952 but over the years, it has turned itself into a body that’s known more for its acts of censorship - cutting out scenes, muting profanities, or even better, banning a film altogether. The changes demanded are often arbitrary and reflect a lamentable lack of appreciation for the artistic integrity of the film and the creative freedom of the filmmaker.
This week a panel constituted by the government and headed by filmmaker Shyam Benegal to look into the functioning of the CBFC came out with a set of recommendations. If implemented, it may end the Board’s glory days of wanton censorship. The panel has recommended that the CBFC’s scope be limited to certifying films, that is, “categorising the suitability of the film to audience groups on the basis of age and maturity”. In theory, this strips the CBFC, hitherto so aptly referred to as the “Censor Board”, of the power to mutilate films in an effort to make them conform to the moral and cultural standards of a particular group of individuals.
The categories of certification have also been amplified. Apart from U (unrestricted), and A (adults), UA (unrestricted, but with parental discretion) is now divided into UA/12 (for children above 12 years) and UA/15 (for those above 15 years). The adults category too has been broken up into A and AC (adults with caution). The panel recommends that certification should be “responsive to social change” and that it can only be denied if a film “crosses the ceiling laid down in the highest category of certification” or when it is found to violate the provisions of the Cinematograph Act.
Indeed, the Benegal committee seeks to clip the CBFC’s wings in more ways than one. Apart from shrinking its job description drastically, the panel also wants the CBFC board, including its chairperson, to “only play the role of a guiding mechanism and not be involved in the day-to-day affairs of certification of films”. It suggests, moreover, that given its “limited functions”, the board should only consist of nine members (at present it has 23) - one from each region - and one chairperson.
Will this be enough to free Indian films from the tyranny of the CBFC? Yes and no.
Restricting the CBFC’s role only to certifying films is, of course, long overdue. In recent years the board has been at the centre of many a controversy (and an avalanche of ridicule) for its clownish attempts to “sanitise” films. The trend peaked after its current chairperson, former film producer Pahlaj Nihalani took over in January 2015.
A staunch camp follower of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and one who proudly wears his strait-laced sanskari credo on his sleeve, Nihalani came out with a list of 28 cuss words he wished to ban from Indian films soon after he assumed office. Preposterously, even “Bombay” featured in that hot list because it is no longer the official name of the city.
Although these words were never actually proscribed, many films have felt the sharp edge of the scissor-happy Nihalani. The CBFC’s more memorable acts on his watch include trimming a kissing scene in last year’s James Bond movie, Spectre, and blocking the release of films like Fifty Shades of Grey, which had explicit sexual content,or Un-freedom, which depicted alternative sexuality.
Strangely, even after a film gets an A certification, absurd notions of morality continue to chip away at it. For example, despite their adults tag, nearly all the expletives were muted in films like NH10, Dibakar Banerjee’s Titli or Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses.
Hence, taking away the CBFC’s right to slash and burn, without caring a jot for a film’s context or aesthetics, or indeed, the audience’s freedom to decide what it does or does not wish to watch, would be very welcome.
Again, the committee tries to make the advisory panels from the nine regions - those who screen films first and award certifications - more diverse. This could, one hopes, lead to more enlightened decisions at the time of certification. And perhaps greater sensitivity to the mature aesthetics of a cinematic work of art.
To that end, the report proposes that members of the advisory panels should be drawn in equal proportion from persons recommended by a) the National Film Development Corporation b) the Federation of Film Societies of India c) the National Council for the Protection of Child Right and the National Commission of Women, and d) representatives of the local film industry as recommended by the Film Federation of India. In addition, 50 per cent of the members of each of these panels should be women.
These are commendable suggestions, no doubt. However, the real problem of film certification in India is that it is always haunted by the bogey of the Cinematograph Act of 1952. While guaranteeing freedom of speech, including that of the press and cinema, the law also lays down some “reasonable restrictions”. Section 5B(1) of the Act says that the restrictions relate to any work that can be deemed to be against “the sovereignty and integrity of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence” and so on.
Unfortunately, the vague wording of Section 5B(1), especially the reference to “public order”, “decency” or “morality” (concepts that can never be defined in absolute terms) are perfect for subjective interpretation. As the bizarre cut to the kissing scene in Spectre showed, one man’s vanilla kiss can be another man’s raging carnality.
This is also partly the reason for generations of CBFC officials to urge cuts to films or deny certification altogether. So whether it is Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1994) or Kamal Hasaan’s Vishwaroopam (2013) and, indeed, innumerable other films, the CBFC has often gone for censorship rather than offend anyone.
Nihalani’s immediate predecessor, Leela Samson, did not clear the film Messenger of God that featured Dera Saccha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in the lead role. In fact, she resigned in protest after the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal overturned her decision. Kaum de Heere, a film on the assassins of Indira Gandhi, was also banned during her tenure. Another former CBFC chief, Anupam Kher, too banned the film Final Solution on the Gujarat riots.
Therefore, unless the Cinematograph (notice that museum piece of a name!) Act itself is overhauled and made more contemporary, film certification is bound to be plagued by irrational and deeply subjective yardsticks of what is “moral”, or “decent” or against “public order”.
In 2013, the Justice Mukul Mudgal committee, also constituted at the behest of the government, submitted a report (which included the age-based certification categories suggested by the Benegal panel) to streamline CBFC’s functioning and do away with the culture of cuts. It also proposed amendments to the Cinematograph Act.
Needless to say, the government of the day did not see it fit to implement the recommendations. Nor did it amend the law.
This government can choose to act differently. It can choose to act on the recommendations of the Benegal committee, limit the CBFC board’s sphere of influence and hence the influence of political appointees and their penchant for doing away with anything they feel is inimical to the interests of their political masters.
However, even if it does the unthinkable and actually implements the report, little will change as long as the basic philosophy of certification is tethered to the provisions of Section 5B(1) of the Cinematograph Act. The CBFC may no longer be able to wield the scissors but those handing out certifications can continue to be as prudish and arbitrary in their decisions as they want.
Shuma Raha is a senior journalist who was until recently with The Telegraph.