Do we need a film censor?

April 14, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Rakesh Sharma

Censorship has no space in a mature democracy. The jury is out, though, on the kind of democracy we are

Cinema as an art form has always drawn a disproportionate interest from the Indian state and the judiciary. Their approach is best encapsulated in this excerpt from the last major constitutional challenge to censorship law, nearly 50 years ago, in the landmark S. Rangarajan v P. Jagjivan Ram case: “Movie motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention. It makes its impact simultaneously arousing the visual and aural senses... The focusing of an intense light on a screen with the dramatizing of facts and opinion makes the ideas more effective. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi-darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have an impact in the minds of spectators.” (Paragraph 10)

The Supreme Court went on to cite an academic study according to which “continual exposure to films of a similar character” would significantly affect the attitude of an individual or a group. On this basis, the Supreme Court deemed pre-censorship necessary.

The Rangarajan judgment gave a final stamp of judicial approval to the notion of a nanny state, treating its audiences as infantile subjects, to be shepherded carefully through the treacherous universe of cinema.

Colonial hangover

The Cinematograph Act of 1952 was derived from colonial censorship laws. But the world has changed dramatically: audiences no longer run out of movie halls like they did watching The Arrival of a Train , fearful of the locomotive advancing towards them. Even if ‘the masses’ were somehow extra ‘gullible’ in the India of the 1960s, the average ‘visual literacy level’ has gone up dramatically in this age of 24x7 TV, YouTube and video-selfies.

The state considers every citizen rational enough to make serious, life-affecting decisions like who to vote for (at 18), who to marry (at 21), what career to choose, investments to make etc but, cross the threshold and enter a cinema theatre and the citizen turns into a bumbling idiot, unable to discern what to watch or not, to be lent a helping hand by the Pahlaj Nihalani-fied Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

Yes, India is a diverse society. Yes, there will always be grievances from some section of civil society. And yes, we need an arbitration mechanism to address a wide range of concerns. We need a multi-layered solution to the absurd censorship regime in India. The industry must set up the Film Council of India to deal with civil society grievances. The CBFC’s scope must be limited to certification, with no powers to maim, mutilate or ban any film. For any film it finds ‘objectionable’, the CBFC should refer it to the Film Certification Tribunal. The tribunal comprising retired judges, lawyers, filmmakers, writers and artists must become the sole forum for a considered dialogue with the filmmaker concerning any ‘censorship’ of their work.

Stop being a nanny

The final recommendations of the Shyam Benegal Committee are disappointing as they chose not to examine any of the “reasonable restrictions”, directly borrowed from Article 19(2) into the Cinematograph Act. Much of the political censorship that our cinema, particularly documentary films, are subjected to stem from these holy cow exceptions, especially as they allow politically partisan members of the CBFC to intervene and subvert free speech.

Censorship has no space in a mature democracy. The jury is out, though, on the kind of democracy we are with the government actually playing a bigger nanny, regulating not just cinema but our daily lives, rationing currency, petrol, even food portions, banning liquor, meat and criminalising love. In these times of beef-lynchings, couple-thrashings, legally-sanctioned goon squads and fatwas, intolerance will beget worse censorship in the coming years.

Rakesh Sharma is a filmmaker whose work includes‘Final Solution’, a documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots


Bimal Julka


Total censorship and absolute freedom are problematic. India has varying needs; we must strike a balance

India is a very vast and complex country and the same freedom enshrined in the Constitution applies to cinema as well. Neither cinema nor the press are separately listed in the Constitution, though they are derived from Article 19 (1)A, which lists the freedom of speech and expression. The issue of censorship comes up when we debate whether there should be restrictions to freedom of expression. And the answer is that a total censorship and absolute freedom can both be problematic. Citizens of the country as complex as ours have varying needs, requirements and sensibilities and one has to strike a balance.

And this balance has been elaborated in the form of restrictions to freedom of expression under Article 19 (2) and these have to do with the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. In the sense, there will be reasonable restrictions to free speech which affects the country’s integrity and disturbs public order, decency and so on and so forth. I also strongly hold that the CBFC, which is a statutory body, should have the last word on a film, on whether to allow it for public exhibition without changes or release it with certain deletions and modifications.

Vetting important

The idea behind vetting is to ensure that people do not get exposed to potentially psychologically dangerous material. The combination of speech and sight and action in the semi-dark environment of a theatre can impact viewers in ways we cannot even imagine. The power of the visual medium can never be overstated. It carries with it the potential to instil violent modes of behaviour and cannot be equated with other modes of communication. Censorship and reasonable restrictions are required because of the impact that cinema can have on the minds of the viewing public. Films as a medium of entertainment require a different treatment from books or newspapers. Watching a film is not like reading a newspaper. That is why films have to be certified in order for them to be exhibited in a public place according to age as Unrestricted, Adult or Under Parental Guidance or Special category.

Cinema must be regulated

And just as advertising and marketing are regulated by self-regulatory bodies, cinema too is regulated by the CBFC, with an individual from the world of cinema heading it.

The regional boards too have people from all walks of life and from different regions in India. The chairperson of the board and its members are appointed by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry but these are people who represent different sections of society. The members are tasked with viewing films keeping in mind the reasonable restrictions enshrined in the Constitution. It is the restrictions which serve as a moral compass for the committee members of the Board. Certification is a dynamic process and one which is likely to change as society changes and evolves. For now, the government is in the process of examining the recommendations of the Shyam Benegal Committee, a demand of the Indian film industry, and which, to my mind, is the right step forward.

Bimal Julka is a former Information and Broadcasting Secretary and is currently an Information Commissioner in the Central Information Commission. Views are personal


If we don’t engage, how will we critique anything? The CBFC should certify, not censor

Ira Bhaskar


The name of the Central Board of Film Censors was changed to the Central Board of Film Certification in 1983 and that pretty much explains the responsibility of the CBFC, which is to certify films according to age. The certification should make it clear that UA means watching films under parental guidance. It is the responsibility of the parent to ensure that he or she accompanies the child. Movies certified Adult should not be censored at all. The ratings are meant to indicate the category under which the films are certified as U, UA, S, and A. And as long as you certify films, you need a certification board. Like the West, we should have a child-centric certification, one which seeks to protect our children against adult content. The certification board should certify and not censor.

However, I do understand the problems when you encounter hate speech in a film as a member of the examining committee under the CBFC. Also, when a film creates hostility between communities/gender, demonising the other, its narrative will make its politics clear to those from the examining committee tasked with certifying that film.

Problems of omission

The problem that we encountered as board members is that the examining committee tends to see and judge a film on the basis of a song or a dialogue in a film and not the whole. They tend to look at a dialogue and not the context in which it is placed. Filmmakers committed to a humanistic vision are sensitive to this and the dialogues are often contextualised in their films. Take Bandit Queen : if we don’t contextualise the violence the protagonist faced, we will not be able to understand the violence she unleashed. As a society we are extremely volatile and nervous about saying anything at all as a result, we don’t debate anything and this often gets reflected in the acts of the examining committee which prefers to omit a troublesome part.

In the class where I teach cinema, I often discuss Hey Ram with my students. For me, the film is an examination of the kind of pernicious ideologies which instigate hatred of the other. It is a difficult film which politically examines Hinduism versus Gandhism and is a commentary on what we have lost as a society. The film faced a lot of problems with the examining committee of the CBFC. If you cut out a dialogue or a scene from such a film, viewing it becomes meaningless.

Meaningless cuts

As a board member, I faced such a problem when Chakravyuh , a film by Prakash Jha, ran into problems with the examining committee which objected to a song after the film was given an Adult certificate. The song communicated the political vision of the film which was on Naxalites, and examined why they are so disenchanted with the political system. It criticised corporates for impoverishing the people. When this film came to the revising committee, we tried to convince members that the song was the soul of the film. In the end, the filmmaker agreed to a disclaimer in the song which said the names of capitalists referred to in it were symbolic and were not meant to insult a particular corporate house. A member dissented and it was noted in the minutes.

If we don’t engage, how will we critique anything? This nervousness with examining issues has created a strange situation where we censor rather than examine the context.

Ira Bhaskar is a professor of cinema studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She was also a member of the CBFC

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