The Bombay High Court has handed out a lesson to the scissor-happy members of the Central Board of Film Certification, one that they, especially its overzealous chairman Pahlaj Nihalani, should learn at least now. While ordering that Udta Punjab be granted a certificate in the ‘Adult’ category and >allowed to be screened with one cut and a disclaimer , the court has served a reminder that certification, and not censorship, is the real job of the CBFC. And that the power to order changes and cuts must be exercised only in line with provisions of the Constitution and Supreme Court orders. Its mandate is not to interfere with the film-maker’s creative process and freedom of expression. More importantly, the CBFC has been advised not to look at cinema like a ‘grandmother’ and instead move with the times and understand the impulses of present-day creators who may have a candid and direct manner of storytelling. It has reminded the Board that a film should be seen as one whole and its scenes and dialogues be not taken out of context. The CBFC had no business in the first place to appoint itself the guardian of the honour of Punjab and take umbrage at the portrayal of the prevailing reality of widespread drug addiction in the State. Suggesting that references to Punjab and other places be deleted amounted to ordering that a film about a besetting vice in a particular geographical area be converted into a vague tale in a make-believe world.
The reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2) have been routinely invoked to choke free speech and expression. These restrictions were never meant to include such things as whether people, in power or otherwise, found something in poor taste, offensive or against the grain of social or political opinion. We live in a country where hurt sentiment is used to seek curbs on all manner of creative expression — in books, music, art and film. In doing what he did, Mr. Nihalani may not, as some of his detractors allege, have been batting for the ruling dispensation in Punjab, which is slated to go to the polls next year. But he is guilty, at the very least, of succumbing to the view that hurt sentiments (whether real or manufactured) are a basis for ordering extensive and story-altering cuts in a film. The Shyam Benegal Committee, which recently submitted its report on norms relating to film certification, >recommended that the CBFC should be nothing more than a certification body . It has suggested that films be classified on the basis of their suitability to different age groups. After Udta Punjab , reforming the CBFC’s functioning has acquired a new urgency.