These Ridiculous Censorship Guidelines Are Why Indian Films Are Having A Tough Time

By Kumar Abhishek and Arjun Natarajan:

Late last month, filmmakers Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla ran into trouble with CBFC,  over a documentary called “An Insignificant Man”. Recently, “Lipstick Under My Burkha” and “Ka Bodyscapes” also faced CBFC’s ire.

It has become important to recognise that pre-censorship of films is a concern for not just filmmakers, but viewers as well.  

India is a democratic country. We can change governments based on votes. We can, of course, decide for ourselves which films are good for us. It was held by Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, before over two decades that, under the Indian Constitution, citizens have the right to know and receive information. However, our film certification laws have compromised these rights.

Cinematograph Act of 1952 reiterates the reasonable restrictions contained in Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. Thus, a film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of CBFC, the film (wholly or partly) 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.

Lipstick Under My Burkha

Subject to these provisions, the Central Government may issue such directions as it may think fit, setting out the principles which shall guide CBFC to certify films under Cinematograph Act of 1952 and sanction them for public exhibition.

Central Government’s guidelines of 1990, issued under Cinematograph Act of 1952, are still in force.

One of the objectives of these guidelines requires that, “The medium of film remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society.” Which is the society in question? What are its values? What are its standards? Expecting the medium of film to remain responsible to such unknown parameters is preposterous. If, in CBFC’s view, the medium of a film fails to remain responsible to such unknown parameters, the filmmaker’s artistic expression goes for a toss. His creative freedom also stands curbed. The viewers’ rights to know and receive information are also undermined.

Another objective of these guidelines requires that, “The medium of film provides clean and healthy entertainment.” Presuming that clean and healthy are universal, what is entertainment? Insisting that the medium of film provides entertainment which is clean and healthy is ludicrous, because, entertainment is subjective. If, in CBFC’s view, the medium of a film fails to provide clean and healthy entertainment, the filmmaker’s artistic expression and creative freedom are affected along-with the viewers’ rights to know and receive information.

Yet another objective of these guidelines requires that, “As far as possible, the film is of aesthetic value and cinematically of a good standard.” The maker of a film has a choice to make it with aesthetic value and cinematically of a good standard. Then, as is only logical, the filmmaker has a choice to make it without aesthetic value and cinematically not of a good standard. If, in CBFC’s view, despite possibilities to that effect, a film is not of aesthetic value and is cinematically not of good standard, the filmmaker’s artistic expression and creative freedom are affected along-with the viewers’ rights to know and receive information.

A Maze Of Restrictions

Suppose there’s a film called “Needles”, intended to create awareness about injection drug use. Without glorifying or justifying drug addiction or injection drug use, the modus operandi of peddlers and addicts, other visuals or words have to be shown, as they are germane to the theme. But such showing gets hit by a guideline that in pursuance of the aforesaid objectives, CBFC shall ensure that the modus operandi of criminals, other visuals or words likely to incite the commission of any offence are not depicted.

The script of “Needles” might demand portrayal of an injection drug user’s physical and mental state, when he desperately needs his drug but he does not find it. However, showing such a scene is most likely to have the effect of de-sensitising or de-humanising people. It gets hit by another guideline which requires that in pursuance of the aforesaid objectives, CBFC shall ensure that such scenes as may have the effect of desensitising or dehumanising people are not shown.

Similarly, the script might demand portrayal of an amateur injection drug user incorrectly injecting a needle, blood spurting out and hitting the roof. It might offend human sensibilities by depravity. It might get hit by yet another guideline which requires that in pursuance of the aforesaid objectives, CBFC shall ensure that human sensibilities are not offended by depravity.

Ka Bodyscapes

At this juncture, it would be useful to examine one more facet of 1990 guidelines under Cinematograph Act of 1952. It mandates that CBFC shall also ensure that the film is judged in its entirety from the point of view of its overall impact, and, examined in the light of the period depicted in the films and the contemporary standards of the country and the people to which the film relates.

Thus, there seems to be some limitation on CBFC’s power to curb what a film like “Needles” shows and what viewers get to see. This limitation is also in tune with the objectives that artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed and certification is responsible to social changes.

However, the said guidelines go on to say that the film should not deprave the morality of the viewers, in CBFC’s view. Thus, if “Needles”, a film which is intended to create awareness about injection drug use, depraves the morality of the viewers, in CBFC’s view, it shall fall foul of the said guidelines.

If only “Needles” were to have been a television show or a web-series, it would not have been pre-censored under Indian law, as television shows and internet content are beyond the purview of CBFC.   

What About Documentaries?

Till date, Cinematograph Act of 1952 and Cinematograph (Certification) Rules of 1983 have not defined the word “documentary”.

Pertinently, Cinematograph (Censorship) Rules of 1958 which existed before Cinematograph (Certification) Rules of 1983 were issued, treated newsreel and documentary separately from a feature film. In fact, Cinematograph (Censorship) Rules of 1958 prescribed a separate examining committee for certifying documentaries, educational films et cetera. However, Cinematograph (Certification) Rules of 1983 having replaced Cinematograph (Censorship) Rules of 1958, the said distinction is a relic of the past.

For the purpose of Cinematograph Act of 1952 and Cinematograph (Certification) Rules of 1983, a documentary is just another film.

Documentaries, by their very nature, either portray real life incidents, or, recount details of any incident. The basis of such portrayal or recounting is facts. Facts should never be censored. Pre-censorship of facts is disturbing.

Television content and internet content are extensively dotted with editorials, investigative reports and news. In India, such content is not at the mercy of any authority for certification/scrutiny. It travels to the audience, freely. However, Indian documentaries (which are a lot like editorials, investigate reports and news) are haunted by pre-censorship, because, documentaries are films, as per Indian law.

Documentarians often suffer a host of hardships, including monetary hardships, since documentaries are made on shoestring budgets. Critical acclaim apart, documentaries rarely generate revenue. In view of such compelling monetary reasons, ideally, there should be no requirement to pay any fees for certification of documentaries in India. However, in India, the fees for certifying documentaries is the same as that for films, which have budgets running into lakhs and crores.

So, what if “Needles” had been a documentary? Well, it’s likely to suffer a lot more at the hands of CBFC.

If being a film in India is a curse, being a documentary in India is worse.

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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