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Letting our films fly

Support: "Udta Punjab’s censorship battle has brought together a section of the largely splintered Hindi film industry for the common cause of freedom of expression.” A poster of the film. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Filmmaker Shyam Benegal, the head of the government-appointed Central Board of Film Certification revamp committee, watched Udta Punjab at an exclusive screening — and liked it. “If you ask me, technically it’s a very well-made film,” he said. This was a significant endorsement and a moral victory of sorts for the makers of the film that is caught in a major censorship row.

Udta Punjab’s censorship battle has brought together a section of the largely splintered Hindi film industry for the common cause of freedom of expression. But an even bigger war needs to be fought now, that too by Mr. Benegal and his committee members. Their first step — the recommendation that the Board certify films instead of censoring them indiscriminately — is in the right direction, but instances such as Udta Punjab are pointers to the possible chinks in this newly proposed armour.

Not by certification alone

Take, for instance, how the provision of certification comes with one huge rider: that certification can be denied when a film contains anything that contravenes the provisions of Section 5B (1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952. The section states: “A film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, the film or any part of it is against the interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.” Section 5B (2) further states: “Subject to the provisions contained in sub-section (1), the Central Government may issue such directions as it may think fit setting out the principles which shall guide the authority competent to grant certificates under this Act in sanctioning films for public exhibition.”

In the case of Udta Punjab these guidelines have been cited for suggesting a number of deletions. These include the names of places — Jalandhar, Chandigarh, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Moga, Tarn Taran, Jashanpura, Ambesar. It also includes the name Punjab itself, and words such as election, MP, MLA, and Parliament. The CBFC has objected to the fact that a dog is called Jackie Chan, to the many cuss words in songs and dialogues, the itching and scratching gestures of a character, and close-ups of people injecting drugs. It has demanded the deletion of a dialogue describing the Punjab as “ Zameen banjar te aulaad kanjar” (Of barren lands and progenies who are pimps). It is a clear indication that the film would have definitely landed in trouble even if we were in an era of certification rather than censoring.

It is a given that artistic expression and creative freedom should not be curbed, and audiences should have the right to make informed viewing choices. But that cannot be achieved just by a call for viewership categories alone. Though there cannot be rigid guidelines for certifying films, there is a need for more far-reaching changes aimed at a larger institutional revamp and systemic alteration in the entire functioning of the CBFC, which ensure that a film is viewed in entirety for its overall impact than in such a piecemeal manner. This is more so for films that show bitter truths of life. Documentaries, especially those based on contentious political incidents and issues, have an even more difficult passage, be it Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution on the 2002 Gujarat riots or Kamal Swaroop’s recent Dance for Democracy/The Battle of Banaras on the big electoral fight of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections between Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal.

The archaic Cinematograph Act itself needs to be updated, and various sections modified. How can we ensure that concepts like integrity of the country, decency and morality enumerated in Section 5B don’t remain open to partisan interpretations and misuse? How can a film rise above and not remain vulnerable to individual (mis)readings and (mis)understandings? These questions will have to be constantly raised and tackled head-on, even after the dust settles on Udta Punjab.

It is important to look more closely at the functioning of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), to which the producers of Udta Punjab have now appealed. A statutory body, the Tribunal hears appeals from any applicant who is aggrieved by an order of the CBFC. The FCAT decision, however, can also be challenged in the courts. Currently it is headed by Justice S.K. Mahajan and its members include politician Shazia Ilmi, actor Poonam Dhillon, lawyer Bina Gupta, and journalist Shekhar Iyer. In recent times, while a sex comedy like Great Grand Masti got the FCAT’s clearance, Dance for Democracy/The Battle of Banaras did not. Nonetheless, there is often talk about strengthening the specialised Tribunal to address all cinema-related issues rather than have people rush to the nearest High Court, along the lines of legislation in other fields of quasi-regulation/licensing such as the Securities Appellate Tribunal for capital markets, and the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal as regards telecom.

And then there are the States

There is yet another crucial hurdle to artistic freedom. Apart from the Union Act, every State has its own supplementary rules of censorship. Even films with certificates have been stopped at the State level on a perceived threat to law and order. These include the Punjabi film Sadda Haq, Kamal Haasan’s Viswaroopam, Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan, Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Café, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. Experts say that there could be a provision in the Act that a certified film’s exhibition will ordinarily not be suspended, or that the order of suspension of exhibition may not be passed unless the producer has been given a hearing. Clearly then, Pahlaj Nihalani is just a minor snag. There are far too many hurdles to the free and fearless flight of a film.

namrata.joshi@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 9:22:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Letting-our-films-fly/article14412695.ece

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