Film Censorship in India

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has constituted a committee with Shyam Benegal as Chairperson to help evolve broad guidelines/procedure within the ambit of the Cinematograph Act 1952 and Cinematograph (Certification) Rules 1983. Readers ought to be reminded that in February 2013 the Government of India had appointed another committee with Justice Mukul Mudgal as Chairperson to hold a full review of Indian Cinematograph Act 1952. The Mudgal Committee had appended in its Report of September 2013 a draft Cinematograph Act to replace the 1952 Act. It also recommended that the Central government should issue suitable directions guiding the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), regarding the sanctioning of films for public exhibition. 

The Benegal Committee’s work assumes great significance in the light of the above. The powers-that-be seem to be looking at a holistic strategy for revamping the archaic film censorship system. The following is an attempt to pinpoint some major deficiencies in the system with regard to its philosophy and guidelines/procedure.

In June 1983, the government rechristened the Central Board of Film Censorship, set up in 1951, as the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC both). But the change in nomenclature has simply been a cosmetic one. The word certification was foisted as a camouflage for censorship. In the true sense of the term, certification classifies a film’s content with reference to certain parameters, such as the viewer’s age, the sexual orientation, violence-content, moral or ethical implication of the film and so on. It therefore, satisfies a desire on the part of an audience to be informed in advance if their act of watching a film would displease or offend them. While certification puts emphasis on sensitising the audience regarding the content of a film, the focus in censorship is on sanitising. The former prepares the audience for a film while the latter prepares the film for an audience within certain parameters of “public interest”. In certification therefore, the right to information accentuates the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of reception and the right to even refuse reception. But censorship is all about regimentation and moderation, if not curtailment, of freedom of expression/reception. 

However, much as the Indian State machinery wants us to believe that the CBFC carries out certification, truth is, it still indulges in the classical form of censorship. The very nature of film certification makes it a transparent practice primarily because it involves dissemination of information. But film censorship in India is more in the nature of a restrictive or prescriptive practice, and it shuns transparency by withholding information. That is what makes CBFC such a dubious, and at times, suspect institution. Moreover, the censorship guidelines being used by the CBFC lead to a number of problems/questions.

These guidelines have gone far beyond the restrictions permitted under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Expert opinion has often favoured the incorporation of only authorised restrictions in censorship/certification guidelines. But the authorities governing film censorship have deliberately overstepped their constitutional parameters about “reasonable restrictions” on the right to freedom of speech and expression in cinema as if to underline that film censorship was something special. Of course, having guidelines for film censorship regarding depiction of anti-social activities, modus operandi of criminals, exploitation of women and children, insensitivities towards racial, religious or other groups, promotion of communal, obscurantist, anti-scientific and anti-national attitudes or the proper use of national symbols and emblems was not improper  per se. But these issues can very well be taken care of by the existing legal-judicial framework consisting of Indian Penal Code 1860 (together with Criminal Procedure Code 1973), Indecent Representation of Women (Prevention) Act 1986, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal Act 1960 etc.

The truth remains that the government has placed the CBFC in an awkward position, at least morally. In any system, there is bound to be complications and deficiencies. What is, however, desirable is an honest attempt to make the system as far credible as possible. The CBFC is so low on credibility that it has almost been rendered anachronistic. Hence, one frequently comes across a demand to scrap the CBFC. While the most extreme articulation of this demand advocates doing away with film censorship altogether, the more moderate voices call for one of the following, and arguably better, options: reforming the system to make it more rational; replacing it with one of self-censorship by the film industry, or instituting an independent statutory agency. 

Judging by their respective numerical strength, the abolitionists, the reformists and the advocates of self-censorship are more or less equally placed in matters of conviction and articulation. However, many people these days are pitching for an autonomous, statutory institution like the Human Rights Commission, Law Commission or Press Council to replace the CBFC. This institution should ideally have access to real expert opinion on cinema and constitution. Prima facie, this seems the best possible option, provided its writ and jurisdiction are carefully drawn to ensure its efficacy. Maybe for a start, it should continue with the practice of pre-censorship. 

But the sooner it starts making a move towards certification, along with proper rating/classification, the better. Another desirable precondition would be to keep such a system away from the clutches of bureaucracy. No illusion, however, should be harboured that such a system would be foolproof and an ideal one. Imposing restraint, in whatever form, on freedom of speech and expression in a democratic environment, is bound to be problem-ridden and hazardous at times. Questions of propriety, morality, obscenity or vulgarity will still be hotly debated and prognosis contested. Priorities will continue to change. Chances are remote for any consensus to emerge or even ‘objective’ standards to evolve on these issues. Yet an autonomous organization moderating/guiding the course of the film medium is far better than an “attached and subordinate organization” of a central ministry as the CBFC in now designated.

Cinema in India has suffered more than eight decades of censorship, of which close to six decades have elapsed in the post-Independence era. This era has unfolded a complex saga of the Indian State keeping the cinematic medium in chains despite granting its citizens the right to free speech and expression. 

The idea was to pre-empt any misuse of freedom by the film medium to the detriment of private citizens’ right. But its application so far has generated a long list of serious abuses—those of bureaucratic prerogative, of official position, of constitutional leverage. This has been so, despite the efforts of the judiciary to restrain the State. However, in the same breath, we should also recall that in 1971 the Supreme Court had put the stamp of legitimacy on film censorship in India by declaring it as necessary for the society.

Film censorship, as it is practised in India, remains full of contradictions and a huge blot on India’s otherwise creditable record as a functioning democracy. It looks even more dubious in the context of her endeavour towards liberalisation and globalisation. If the Indian State could lower its economic guard post-1991, what prevents it from doing so in the field of cinema? Newer vistas of episteme and perception are emerging in the form of numerous theories and/or insight about/in culture, communication, media, gender and sexuality. Nobody expects the CBFC to incorporate each and every bit of contemporary perception within its intellectual and/or operational framework. But not to find even the slightest sign of awareness about these issues in its policy or operation is appalling.

Will the Benegal Committee take note? 

(The writer is Director, Educational Multimedia Research Centre, St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata, a UGC media centre. Views expressed are personal)
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