Shyam Benegal: ‘The government of the day cannot assume that it has created the CBFC’

The filmmaker spoke about the status of his committee’s report, which has not yet been implemented by the Information and Broadcasting ministry.

The replacement of Pahlaj Nihalani with Prasoon Joshi as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification has been widely welcomed. But is that reason enough to rejoice? And what of the fate of the committee set up to reform the certification process and revamp the board’s functioning?

The committee was appointed by the central government in 2016. It was headed by Shyam Benegal, and its members included Kamal Haasan, Rakeysh Mehra and Piyush Pandey. Among the recommendations were the introduction of categories such UA12+, UA15+, A and AC (Adult with Caution) to ensure that films do not get unduly cut and instead reach the intended audience of their makers. The report clearly defined the role of the CBFC chairperson as the board’s “guiding mechanism”, who would not be involved with the day-to-day job of certifying films. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has not yet acted on the recommendations. In an interview, Shyam Benegal said he would be speaking to Information and Broadcasting Minster Smriti Irani to get an update on the committee’s report.

Pahlaj Nihalani is out. Any thoughts?

I have no comments to make on Pahlaj Nihalani or about the government’s decision to retire him. That said, Prasoon Joshi is a good choice as the CBFC chairman. He is a very fine poet in Hindi, he is a well-known lyricist, he has been heading one of the finest advertising agencies in the country. He has great knowledge of media, cinema, and the arts. He is also a literary figure.

Many, many filmmakers had complained about the workings of the CBFC, and as you well know, the media itself carried reports too. The latest was this gentleman, [Kushan] Nandy, who was asked to make 40 cuts or something in his film. I have read reports about several filmmakers being unhappy with the CBFC’s decisions, but I cannot comment on that because it did not happen to me.

Have you heard back from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry after your committee submitted its report?

Our report was given in 2016 in two parts, April and October. We haven’t heard from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry officially in any manner. I have asked them a couple of times and they said that things are happening. I have decided that I will speak to the correct people at the ministry on Wednesday and if I don’t get a satisfactory answer, I will seek an appointment with Mrs. Irani and find out.

Nihalani had said that he would take the “strictest action” against filmmakers screening their films uncensored at film festivals in “exotic locations”. Film festivals do not come under the censor board’s jurisdiction. Will this change?

I don’t believe so. What happens is that international film festivals recognised by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations do not recognise or accept films that are censored. The International Film Festival of India or the Mumbai Film Festival is FIAPF-recognised. Here, they want films the way they were originally designed.
Since FIAPF itself does not want to encourage the idea that someone else can interfere with the content and the creative intent of a film, films cannot be censored before they are taken to international festivals.

If censor board members are selected by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, do you think that they can act independently, at all, ever?

It’s a constitutional requirement for the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to choose the CBFC members. The CBFC is a State institution. It has nothing to do with the government in power. A state is forever, like the nation. Governments come and go.

Who represents the people? The legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. The government is the executive and it cannot take over the powers of the legislature or the judiciary. These distinctions need to be made. The government of the day cannot automatically assume that it has created the CBFC.

Your report says that films will continue to be refused a certificate if they fail to comply with Section 5B(1) of the Cinematograph Act. This section deals with films threatening the sovereignty of the Indian nation, its national interest, decency and morality. Don’t you think that this section can be interpreted in several ways?

We created the several sub-categories to cover the whole gamut between the Universal (U) and the Adult (A) certificate. The Cinematograph Act was passed in 1952, and things have changed since that and it requires amendments. The problem with amending an act is that it needs to be tabled in the Parliament and debated and so on. That is the law.

It is not so difficult to interpret that section. If somebody is against the constitution of India or if somebody is threatening the country through a film, it cannot be allowed. No country will allow such a film. You cannot challenge the sovereignty of a country, no?

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