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Sanskaar, Politics, Control: Indian Film Censorship Through The Decades

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The proposed Cinematograph (Amendment) Act, by the Information And Broadcasting Ministry led by Anurag Thakur (of “Desh Ke Gadaaron ko…” fame) is yet another nail in the coffin of freedom of speech and expression in India.

The amendment proposes to penalise film piracy with a fine and jail term, introduce age-based certification, and allow the government to order recertification of already certified films after receiving complaints about the aforementioned film. The latter is the troubling aspect of this amendment as it basically allows the government to remove certification from already certified films.

In a country like India, which seems more and more to be dominated by conservative thought, one can imagine how this will affect the art of film even more.

Representational Image. The censor board still carries colonial ideas of morality, evidenced by its ban on Lipstick Under My Burkha because it centred on female sexuality.

This decision comes in the backdrop of the government’s decision to scrap the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), where filmmakers could air their grievances about the cuts made by the Central Bureau Of Film Certification (CBFC). Censorship of films in India has always been known to be stuck in the past in terms of what a film can and cannot show. Adding this amendment will only lead to mob censors.

Censorship has always been a political tool by the ruling class, where certain ideas and themes are censored or banned just because they stand as a threat. Along with the backward “morals” of the CBFC, filmmakers will now be forced to look away from topics that the government might not like, or the majority of the BJP’s supporters might not like.

But to understand the idea of censorship as a political tool, one needs to dive into the history of censorship in India.

The History Of Censorship As A Political Tool

Censorship did not begin as a need to regulate the contents of a film, but because of what the film was stored on in the 20th century. Nitrate film was a highly flammable substance used for film screenings, and after numerous incidents of the substance catching fire in theatres between the first movie screening in 1897 to 1909, the British passed legislation to check the safety of the film before it was licensed.

The 1909 legislation was simply about checking the safety, but local authorities took it as an opportunity to regulate the content itself. One thing led to another and the British Board Of Film Censors was formed in 1912.

In India, film censorship came 6 years later in 1918 as Indians started making and consuming more films in Colonial India. While there were no hard and fast rules on what a suitable film should be, the censor board was given 43 objectionable subjects that the film shouldn’t contain.

From politically motivated subjects like confinement in the backdrop of Indians getting arrested fighting in the freedom struggle, to the ones around sexuality such as exhibition of female underclothing, indecorous dancing, and the like. Some of these archaic rules around sexuality the Indian censors still follow, think ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha‘ being banned for its depictions of female sexuality and for being too “lady-oriented”.

The idea of sanskaar is ever-present in Indian cinema.

In colonial India, the censors also had another job: making sure that films weren’t political. Films that depicted independence movements or were nationalistic in nature were often banned by the censor board. Anything from Gandhi to revolution was not allowed to be shown on Indian screens. A repeat of the same is what the Cinematograph (Amendment) Act, 2021 is offering where political films and movies critical of the BJP or the state will face increased censorship or bans.

Political Films In Independent India

It is not like political films aren’t banned under just the CBFC, as members of this board can have political motivations and leanings. One such example is ‘Aakrosh’, a 2003 25-minute documentary on the Gujarat riots that was banned as it showed the government and the police in a bad light. These politically motivated decisions do take place in modern India but are not the norm. The Indian film Censors have become more concerned about “Indian Sanskaar” and conservative morality than the politics that governed censorship decisions in Colonial India.

Where the amendment comes in is that it makes the government the last say on whether a film will get its certification or not. This opens up a whole new host of threats to freedom of expression as the BJP can use this to censor films that criticize it or its conduct. Hypothetically, film certification and what we see on our screens can also become a part of vote-bank politics. For Example, if Deepika Padukone starrer Padmavati is released today and faces flak from caste-Rajput and Hindu groups, the government could revoke its certification to appease these groups.

However, this is a hypothetical aspect, the danger to freedom of expression that this amendment offers is that of the government

A) holding up “sanskaari ideals” in films in addition to the Censorship Board.

B) The banning of films and documentaries critical of the ruling party, its ideas, and functioning in crises.

What Do Filmmakers Think?

Indian filmmakers like Shabana Azmi, among 1000s of others, have publically spoken out against the amendment.

Directors, producers, and actors have come out en-masse to oppose this amendment, citing their concerns around freedom of speech and expression. 1400 filmmakers including Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Vetri Maaran, Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi, Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, and Dibakar Banerjee have sent an open letter to the Information And Broadcasting Ministry opposing the proposed move citing that it will “endanger freedom of expression and democratic dissent.”

Sudhir Mishra, who directed ‘Hazaar Khwaishon Aisi‘, wrote that the amendment will make filmmaking impossible.

When filmmakers who have had to toe the line of the “sanskaari” Censor Board have come out vehemently against this amendment, it just shows the effect that it will have if it gets approved. In 2021, India, historically known for regressive film censorship, is regressing even more under the BJP. Under broader attacks to control critical thinking in our educational institutions, social media, and journalism, the Cinematograph (Amendment) Act is yet another shot by the government against ailing freedom of expression in our country.

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