Censor and sensibility


There is something ironical about the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B) deciding to set up a panel to examine the rules of certification, a demand voiced time and again by the film industry. The move was prompted by questionable decisions made by the ministry’s own chosen man to head the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), Pahlaj Nihalani. And here is the question we must ponder over: why should the ministry take the initiative to >set up a committee under the chair of eminent filmmaker Shyam Benegal? Could not the initiative have come from the film industry itself? For, after all, who better to decide on ground rules of certification than the fraternity itself which engages our attention with cinema?

Ministry monopoly

Why is it that despite more than 100 years of glorious Indian cinema, during which a substantial part was shaped by colonial masters who censored Indian cinema, it is the ministry which continues to calls the shots when it handpicks people to certify films it deems acceptable to the masses? Why should the I&B Ministry, which is inextricably linked to and shaped by the government of the day, whether the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress, have anything to do with cinema? >The decision to set up a committee has been hailed by one and all. Former CBFC chairperson Anupam Kher, appointed during the National Democratic Alliance rule in 2003, says, “This should have happened a long time ago. Our laws are completely out of sync with the times and I am sure whatever Mr. Benegal deliberates on will be acceptable as he is a socially respectable citizen.” Can anyone seriously question his credentials and those of others who have been chosen by the ministry for the onerous task of re-educating, mentoring, and recasting the rules of certification?

Of course not. But the issue here is not of certification but censorship. After all, till June 1, 1983, the Central Board of Film Censors as it was called then, censored films. The hangover remains. Every member of the examining committee, not just the 23 members of the CBFC in Mumbai which certifies films, thinks it is his or her job to protect viewers from anything obscene, or anything likely to offend any community. It is this which drives the members to order cuts in films certified for adult viewing. Add to that the embarrassing fact that they are political appointees and see the position as a favour by their political masters. The advisers to the examining committee, in turn, are political appointees. As advisers they have their own views on proper versus improper viewing. In a completely political set-up, is there room for artistic expression which finds outlet in cinema?

I&B Minister >Arun Jaitley, in informal discussions, has often referred to the American system of certifying films. In the U.S., it is the Motion Picture Association of America, the trade organisation of the film industry, that calls the shots — though who the members of its certification committee are is something shrouded in mystery. Mr. Benegal needs to ponder over whether India needs to emulate the U.S. example. While the debate on certification rages, attempts have been made in the past to establish certain procedures. One was sensitising the members appointed by the government to cinema and its sensibilities. Says film historian Ira Bhaskar, who was with the CBFC until last year: “We organised a few orientation programmes for the members of the examining committee, and it was well-received.” Ms. Bhaskar also recounts her experience with members when she talked them through films like Samskara (1970), the Kannada film written by U.R. Ananthamurthy that had caste as its dominant theme. “There was a clip we showed members where the character played by a Brahmin makes loves to a Dalit woman, to understand their reaction to the scene.” What Ms. Bhaskar is referring to is a sensitisation of members to cinema, drawn as they are from different walks of life. Most of them take up the government’s offer thinking they have to wield the scissors to protect the masses out there from the corrupt influences of cinema.

Politics takes precedence

In many ways, political appointments by the United Progressive Alliance and the NDA have aided censorship of Indian cinema — at least of films with political underpinnings. So > if it was Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti (2010) during the UPA’s time which ran into problems with the examining committee members for the similarity of its main character to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and for several dialogues with references to religious identities, during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA’s time, Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (2004) ran into problems because the main character resembled the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. The members recommended cuts as they apprehended a law and order problem. Says Mr. Kher: “I tried to ensure that the documentary was passed without cuts.”

Political appointments combined with the politics of state pretty much ensure that films are censored and not certified. There is no dearth of committees that have examined problems and issues confronting certification of films. As far back as 1969, the Khosla Committee report had written about the necessity of doing away with the hegemony of the Centre over the Censor Board.

Does that mean the certification rules are fine as they are? A tweaking may not be out of line, says Ms. Bhaskar. During her stint in the CBFC, one of the recommendations that didn’t see the light of day was movies certified for viewing for the age group between 15 and 18 — those not quite adults but not children either.

Perhaps the Benegal panel could look at recommendations made in the past for clues to the future. More importantly, perhaps Mr. Benegal and Co. could recommend doing away with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s powers to appoint members to the CBFC. Why should government-appointed folks decide what we should or should not see?

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Printable version | May 4, 2021 7:43:45 AM |

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