With A Right Wing Dominated Censor Board, It’s Free Speech Vs. The Thought Police

Posted on January 22, 2015 in Culture-Vulture, Politics

By Pankaj Butalia:

It is nobody’s case that the Central Board of Film Certification is a body worth emulating. An institution born out of a desire to control thought can never really inspire much confidence in a democracy. Yet, it is a legacy we gleefully took from the British, and with which a very large section of our population identifies in public even while it displays a completely different behaviour in private.


What is worse is that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and its sister/brother organisations have been acting beyond the scope of what the Cinematographic Act or the Indian constitution permits them to do. Article 19(1)a of the constitution gives Indian citizens the right to free speech. However, Article 19(2) places some ‘reasonable restrictions’ on 19(1)a. These restrictions are very specific and clearly spelt out, and have been upheld by the Supreme Court repeatedly. The Cinematographic Act relies upon these restrictions and limits the restrictive actions of the CBFC to those mentioned in Article 19(2). Which means the CBFC can only object to scenes which fall within the scope of such specific restrictions. However, for almost thirty years now, the CBFC has been guided by instructions from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting about what to permit and what to exclude from a film. While the Cinematographic Act permits the government to issue such guidelines, it does not permit the scope of these to go beyond the restrictions mentioned in 19(2). Thus, at the best of times, for the past two to three decades, the actions of the CBFC have not really been backed by the legality of the constitution.

In India it is also one way in which a completely insignificant group of officials gain leverage over a glamorous industry to which they would normally have no access. Small time officials of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, as well as of the (CBFC) and its appellate body, the Film Central Film Appellate Tribunal, have the power to make or break a film – both by denying it a screening certificate as well as by delaying its release. Last year, a senior member of the CBFC was arrested for taking bribes from filmmakers to expedite the release of their films. No wonder that each political party that comes into power makes a beeline for the CBFC to fill it up with friends and sympathisers. If, in spite of this, we have been able to see some films, it is because rarely has any party been shameless enough to disregard the need to have at least a few members who understand issues as well as films on the Board of the CBFC. This, sadly, might just be about to change.

There is no doubt that the last Chairperson of the CBFC was a dancer of repute and a person with modern sensibilities, in spite of the fact that she was inducted into this position by the UPA government which was not particularly known for its hands off approach to manipulating institutions. However, this Chairperson managed to get some members of the Board to be journalists, academics from film studies as well as well known film critics. Even if all these members did not attend all previews simultaneously, the fact that some members who knew what they were looking for in a film made it possible for us to get to see some films which would otherwise not have seen the light of day. A film like ‘Haider’, for instance, which shows the Indian Army in a far more negative light than has hitherto been seen on the Indian screen, would not have been possible unless members who previewed it, were secure that a bit of damage to the Indian Army would not demoralize it for ever! After all, in spite of the criticism that the film has faced from Kashmiris affected by the violence, it is no mean feat to show that the Indian Army was involved in torture, in disappearances of prisoners, in blowing up homes and people as well as in fermenting conflict amongst Kashmiris.

Similarly, films like ‘OMG’ and ‘PK’ required the CBFC to step back and not be bothered by a bit of criticism of some religious practices. The fact that all three films have been screened successfully without any real trouble is indicative of the fact that it is not films or their content which create trouble, but vested interests which do.

Sadly, with the constitution of the new Board of the CBFC, there is a legitimate fear that there will be tighter control on what we get to view. The new chief of the CBFC is known for his proximity to the current prime minister, and even as far back as in 2004-05 was a cheerleader for Narendra Modi. According to filmmaker Rakesh Sharma, at a screening of his film “The Final Solution”, about the 2002 riots in Gujarat, the newly appointed chief of the Censor Board, Pahlaj Nihalani, got up in the middle of the film and started shouting slogans against the film. Nihalani is also the maker of a music video for Modi’s 2014 election campaign. It’s not just the Chairperson but the entire Board of the CBFC which is now packed with sympathisers of the RSS. While there is nothing that says that a sympathiser of the RSS ought not to find a place on the CBFC, the fact that the RSS believes completely in thought control does not auger well for where the near term future of censorship in India is headed. We can be sure that anything critical of the government’s policies will not be allowed, on one pretext or the other, and an obscurantist viewpoint is deeply embedded now in a body which itself is backward looking. The action will now shift to the courts where the right to free speech is going to be pitted against the thought control police.

Of one thing we can now be sure – that we are in for exciting times.