Movie censorship

Benegal panel on film censorship takes a stand for creativity, but who will watch the watchmen?

Much depends on the reconstitution of the Central Board of Film Certification, currently headed by the scissors-happy Pahlaj Nihalani.

Should films be censored or certified? The committee headed by eminent filmmaker Shyam Benegal to provide guidelines to the Central Board of Film Certification has firmly voted against censorship and made a case for respecting the collective intelligence of the movie-going public.

The committee submitted its report to Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley on April 26. The members (Kamal Haasan, Rakeysh Mehra, Piyush Pandey, Goutam Ghose, Bhawana Somaaya, Nina Lath Gupta and Sanjay Murthy) agreed that the CBFC needs to categorise films according to age groups rather than mutilate scenes. “Artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed in the process of classification of films,” recommended the committee, and “ the process of certification by CBFC is responsive, at all times, to social change.”

There was no immediate word on rolling back the rampant muting of profanity, an initiative spearheaded by CBFC chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani. Will kissing not be reduced any more “by 50%”, as the producers of a recent James Bond film were asked to do? The devil is always in the details.

Film industries across the country will welcome the recommendation that viewers need to be treated like grown-ups, but how many producers will comply with the suggestion that “the applicant must specify the category of certification being sought and the target audience”? The notion of what is “harmful or unsuitable content” for children is subjective and debatable. Besides, filmmakers who wish to increase their market reach push for UA certificates even when their movies are clearly meant only the 18-plus population.

The Benegal committee has a solution: apart from the three main categories, there is a recommendation to sub-divide the UA category into UA12+ & UA15+. “The A category should also be sub-divided into A and AC (Adult with Caution) categories,” recommends the committee. If these categories are created, the onus of the implementation will ultimately rest with cinema chains.

The Mudgal committee report

The creation of new categories also features in the reported submitted by the committee headed by Justice Mukul Mudgal to the previous Congress-led coalition government in 2013. The Mudgal committee members included former CBFC chairpersons Sharmila Tagore and Leela Samson and poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar. None of their suggestions has thus far been implemented.

Both committees also warned against banning films on the specious grounds of unsuitability, except when they contravene the provisions of the Section 5B (1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952. According to this wide-ranging clause:

  “A film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, the film or any part of it is against the interests of 1 [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.”  

The more far-reaching recommendations of the Benegal committee concern the CBFC’s functioning. The Board, which includes the chairperson and members picked by the I&B Ministry, is exhorted to play “the role of a guiding mechanism for the CBFC, and not be involved in the day-to-day affairs of certification of films”. One member should represent each of the nine regional offices (the current constitution of the board tips the balance in favour of Delhi and Mumbai).

Nothing short of an overhaul will be necessary to implement a fresh process of appointing "examining officers", as the people who watch and rate films are known. Several examiners are political appointees who are affiliated to the ruling party. They are a part of the CBFC not because of their understanding of cinema but their contacts, and they are often the culprits behind the sanctimony and righteousness that govern certification.

Even the selection of the CBFC board is routinely politicised. The current crop includes BJP members Vani Tripathi Tikoo, Jeevitha Rajasekhar, George Baker SVe Shekher, Rashtriya Swayamsewan Sangh activist Ramesh Patange, and Narendra Modi cheerleaders Ashoke Pandit and Mihir Bhuta.

Observed the Mudgal committee report:

  “At certain locations, members of such advisory panel lack any form of cinematic understanding, they perceive their role to be that of a Censor Board to cut and chop scenes and in some cases being affiliated to some political, religious or social group, impose without restraint, such political, religious or personal opinions upon content permissible in a film.”   

The Benegal committee has offered a practical solution: it has recommended that the National Film Development Corporation, the Federation of Film Societies of India, the National Council for Protection of Child Rights and National Commission of Women, and the Film Federation of India each recommend 25% of the examiners. Women should have 50% representation on each advisory panel from each regional office. This suggestion, if implemented, will go some way towards improving the certification process and ensuring that at least half of the examiners have more to do with cinema than politics.

Age of Pahlaj

Another important recommendation is that the original uncensored version of a film be despoted with the National Film Archive of India rather than the censored version. This will enable future scholars and students of cinema to watch a movie that reflects the filmmaker’s vision rather than the prejudices of the examiners.

There is also hope for filmmakers on the issue of the obtaining clearance from the Animal Welfare Board of India and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The AWBI’s hyper-vigilance has held up or interfered with several films that feature animals and birds. The ministry’s insistence on running a scroll every time a character lights up over and above a general health advisory that runs in the opening credits is proof that the CBFC doesn’t trust the intelligence of the average viewer.

The Benegal committee has sought more time to offer recommendations on the certification of films that feature animals and birds and/or smoking. The final report will be handed over to the I&B Ministry on June 20. The ministry’s decision will affect filmmakers and fans as well as influence the current functioning of the CBFC.

Will the Age of Pahlaj finally be behind us?

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