Everything That’s Wrong With Film Certification In India

By Kumar Abhishek and Arjun Natarajan:

We tend to use the acronym CBFC and the words “censor board” synonymously. In fact, we often think that CBFC stands for “censor board”. However, CBFC stands for “Central Board of Film Certification”; the word “censor” is nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, the role performed by the Board is that of censorship, and that too, of a drastic nature, because it censors a film or parts of it, even before the viewers view it. This is what is known as “pre-censorship”.

CBFC can deny certifying a film, if the filmmaker refuses to make such cuts and modifications which it thinks are necessary. If a film is not certified, it cannot be released as a film. Denial of certification equals death for a film.

In a vibrant democracy like India, film pre-censorship has always been passed off as film certification. However, we are in an age where most things are a TV channel away and almost everything is a download away. If art manifests itself as a film, it is pre-censored. If the same art manifests itself as television content or as internet content, which wield more power than films as a medium of mass communication, then, it is not pre-censored. Why should it be so?

A seemingly all-powerful CBFC may want to sentence to death a film called “Guns & Thighs” by pre-censoring it. However, it cannot even touch it because it is a web-series. The trailer begins with this message by Ram Gopal Varma: “I always wanted to tell the complete true story of the Mumbai mafia in its raw and real form. Since for various reasons I couldn’t do that in films, I am going to do it here.”

A film on the Mumbai Mafia has to be raw and honest to the context and the theme. Let the viewers decide for themselves if it is suitable for their viewing. CBFC cannot expect Mumbai gangsters to say “Bon Appétit Mademoiselle”, as much as it sounds aesthetic and creates a fake good cinematic standard.

Governments interfere with peoples’ rights in three ways – regulation, control, and prohibition. Regulation is like what a traffic police personnel on any given day does. In order to ensure that the traffic moves smoothly and seamlessly, he might even stop the traffic. However, he does not ask a limousine as to why it is longer than other cars. Control is like what a traffic police personnel might do on Republic Day. He may completely restrict traffic movement on some roads. However, it is not his duty to do so as a matter of routine. Finally, prohibition is like a police personnel enforcing a legally prescribed ban on gambling in a particular locality, by bringing to book gamblers in the area.

Certification is meant to be a very subtle form of regulation. To this day, India is a liberal democracy, where what is not legally prohibited is legally permitted. However, pre-censorship of films is masqueraded as film certification, simply because the law is such.

What’s Wrong With Film Certification In India?

Film certification law is contained in Cinematograph Act of 1952 (under which the CBFC has been set up), Cinematograph (Certification) Rules of 1983, and Central Government’s guidelines of 1990, issued under Cinematograph Act of 1952.

CBFC was set up to sanction films for public exhibition. Central Government appoints the Chairman and the members of CBFC. However, their qualification/s are unspecified. CBFC’s resulting ignorance apart, film certification law in India empowers CBFC to deny certifying a film, if the filmmaker refuses to carry out such excisions (cuts) and modifications in the film as CBFC thinks necessary.

Chief of the Central Board of Film Certification, Pahlaj Nihalani.

To enable CBFC to efficiently discharge its functions under Cinematograph Act of 1952, the said law provides that the Central Government may set up advisory panels, at regional centres, which are duty-bound to examine the films and make such recommendations to CBFC, as they think fit. However, as per Cinematograph Act of 1952, the persons constituting such panels shall be qualified in the opinion of the Central Government to judge the effect of the films on the public. Similarly, Cinematograph (Certification) Rules of 1983 do not provide any criteria for appointment of its members, leaving it to the discretion of the Central Government.

This leaves the CBFC, advisory panels, examining committees and revision committee in the control of those whose qualifications are non-existent and/or based on subjective opinion.

In effect, every film in India must pass through a biased lens before it is released to a wider audience.

Kumar Abhishek and Arjun Natarajan have worked on this piece, which is inspired by Arjun Natarajan’s original piece “Film Certification In India And The Curse of Pre-Censorship”.

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