As producers of the film Udta Punjab on drug abuse, approached the Bombay High Court on Wednesday, here is a look at a string of Supreme Court judgments that champions filmmakers’ freedom of expression by holding that censors cannot prevent open discussion on a social evil even if it is found embarrassing or hateful to the state’s interests.
“No film that extols or encourages a social evil is permissible. But a film that carries the message that a social evil is evil cannot be made impermissible on the ground that it depicts the social evil,” the apex court held while directing Doordarshan in 2006 to air Anant Patwardhan’s documentary Father, Son and Holy War on the question of sexual violence in religion.
The court has laid down the law that the censor’s scissors cannot hold to ransom an artist’s creative freedom at the “fall of a hat”.
“Censors should not have an orthodox or conservative outlook, but must be responsive to change and must go with the current climate,” the Supreme Court observed in 1989 in the S. Rangarajan versus P. Jagjivan Ram case. The case concerned the censor board’s refusal to give a certificate for the exhibition of the Tamil film Ore Oru Gramathile, which criticised the reservation policy.
Holding that the state has an “obligatory duty to protect freedom of expression”, the judgment held that censors cannot justify their suggested cuts as reasonable restrictions on the filmmaker’s right to expression. “Reasonable restrictions must be justified on the anvil of necessity and not the quicksand of convenience and expediency,” it observed.
Grounds for ban
Under the Cinematograph Act, the limited grounds for denying certification to a film are: if the work is against the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite commission of any offence.
The Centre’s guidelines highlight that a film should be judged in its entirety from the point of view of its overall impact and examined in the light of the period depicted in the film. Censors should keep in mind the contemporary standards of the country and the people to whom the film relates, provided the film does not deprave the morality of the audience.
These guidelines are also applicable to the titles of the films. One of the stated intentions of these guidelines is not to “unduly curb artistic expression and creative freedom”.
A 1970, Constitution Bench in K.A. Abbas vs Union of India held that “our censors must make a substantial allowance in favour of freedom …” thus leaving a vast area for creative art to interpret life and society with some of its foibles along with what is good.” The judgment said that a line is to be drawn only if an average, moral man “begins to feel embarrassed or disgusted at a naked portrayal of life without the redeeming touch of art or genius or social value.”
The judgment concerned the censor board’s refusal to certify a documentary, A Tale of Four Cities , which portrayed the contrast between the life of the rich and the poor in the four principal cities of the country. In 1992, the apex court hit out at Doordarshan for refusing to air an award-winning film on the Bhopal gas tragedy. It was held that merely because a film was critical of the State government, DD could not deny selection and publication of the film.
On the demand to snip rape scenes depicting Phoolan Devi’s nudity in the movie Bandit Queen , the court in Bobby Art International & Ors vs. Om Pal Singh Hoon & Ors (1996) , held that censors should recognise the message of a film and apply it to individual scenes to see whether they advance the message or not.
“Adult Indian citizens can be relied upon to comprehend intelligently the message and react to it, not to the possible titillation of some particular scene,” the Bench observed.