“Are you ostriches?" an angry Bombay High Court bench recently asked the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the body responsible for certifying films for public viewing, popularly known as the “censor board” for refusing to issue a universal (U) certificate to a children's film and asserted that the board is a certification board and not a censor board. It further said nobody has given the CBFC the intellectual morality and authority to decide what one wants to watch and see. The bench made the scathing comment while hearing a petition by the Children's Film Society of India, seeking directions to the CBFC to issue their film "Chidiakhana" a U certificate. CBFC had issued the film a universal/adult (U/A) certificate owing to an abusive word in a scene.
Sending the film to the “Censor Board” and making bleeding cuts to the final version of the film to get the CBFC certificate remains one of the painful steps in the entire filmmaking process. The debate about censorship is as old as popular cinema and there is no end in sight. The board continues to mercilessly censor creative works often based on loosely defined morality and individual opinions rather than clearly defined rules.
The court’s observation in case of Chidiakhana is important at this juncture. It throws light on the issue of censorship vs certification. The bench said that the world was changing and so was the art of storytelling. "Looks like we may have to redefine your role entirely. You are forming an opinion that the whole population is infantile and imbecile and you are the only one with an iota of intelligence to decide for everyone," the court further asked.
A recent RTI query filed by an activist revealed that CBFC has banned a total of 793 films in 16 years. These include 586 Indian films and 207 foreign film titles. As many as 231 Hindi films were refused certificate. A number of Tamil (96), Telugu (53), Kannada (39), and Malayalam (23) films too were denied the certification. A whopping 153 films were banned in just one year.
Numerous filmmakers had expressed their humiliating experiences in getting their films cleared by the archaic body. Many point out that the CBFC itself has no relevance in a thriving democracy because it violates the freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution. The industry demands that many provisions in the Cinematograph act of 1952 be revised so that the repeated conflicts with the board and the prolonged legal proceedings involved in getting a suitable certificate can be avoided. Any filmmaker who is not satisfied with the CBFC recommendations has the right to approach the appellate tribunal and the tribunal can clear the film if it finds the concern valid. Many films that did not pass the censors were ultimately cleared by the tribunal and by various courts in the country.
Most of the regional films undergo a stringent scrutiny compared to the films from a few “elite” Bollywood production houses. A scene with a kiss or a woman wearing skimpy clothes is enough for a regional board to certify a small regional production as U/A or A, whereas big Bollywood movies with similar scenes often get away with a U certificate.
The same disparity applies to many other criteria that the board normally employs, in judging violence, profanity, vulgarity in title, and so on. Allegations of corruption, nepotism and preferential treatment to a few were aplenty during the term of previous chief Pahlaj Nihalani. Nihalani, perhaps, was the most controversial censor in the history, owing to the brutal cuts the board ordered in pretty much every film it was asked to certify. Things don’t seem to have improved much under the present chief Prasoon Joshi. Prasoon Joshi was accused of bending the rules to issue a certificate to the film PM Narendra Modi even before it was complete to enable a pre-election release.
A film can be banned for a reason as flimsy as the title being “suggestive” of sex and crime or a semi-nude scene that is integral to the story. Some of those innocuous titles that the CBFC had found offensive in recent years include Pyasi Chandni (Thirsty Moonlight), Madhura Swapnam (Sweet Dream), Manchali Padosan (Sporty Neighbour), Sexy Durga and Sex Vigyan (Sex Education). Bizarre as it may sound, the board recently ordered the Malayalam word “Marakkaathi”, which means a woman belonging to the fishing community, to be removed from the Malayalam film Biriyani by director Sajin Baabu while clearing the pejorative slur “c**t”.
In 2015, the CBFC demanded four cuts and three nude scenes be blurred in the Malayalam film Chaayam Poosiya Veedu directed by Babusenan Brothers. The directors refused to carry out the cuts and hence the film was denied a certificate. The director duo recently defied the board’s strictures to delete the words “saffronization”, “beef eaters”, “CPI-ML” and “maoists” used in their latest film Iruttu and got a favourable order and a ‘U’ certificate from a review committee. Sexy Durga by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan was approved for exhibition only after changing the title to S. Durga and Ka Bodyscapes by Jayan Cherian was denied a censor certificate.
CBFC had demanded 94 cuts and 13 pointers in the Anurag Kashyap production Udta Punjab, a film about the drug menace in Punjab. The film was later cleared by the Bombay High Court with one cut and disclaimers with the court making it clear that the film’s intention is not to malign the image of Punjab, but to save its people from drug abuse. Hansal Mehta’s brilliant biopic drama Aligarh based on the life of Prof Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras at Aligarh Muslim University was granted an “A” certificate just because the word “homosexuality” was used in the film.
Amidst cries for making the board a certification body, the government now aspires to expand the scope of the board beyond films that are released in theatres. Apart from state-funded film festivals, even the independent film festivals in the country have started demanding CBFC certificates before they accept films for selection and screening, blame it on the undue influence of the government on the freedom of speech. Some OTT platforms too have started demanding CBFC certificate while sourcing films. The Cinematograph Act covers only “cinematograph films”, which effectively keeps the content on web platforms from the purview of censors. The board now intends to control all types of audio-visual productions, most importantly web series aired on OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. To push its case for censorship, CBFC seems to be using the criticism that these platforms distribute soft porn content without discretion.
The contents of the recent Netflix series Sacred Games and Leila had invited the wrath of hardliner Hindutva outfits. A Shiv Sena member filed a complaint against Netflix India for “defaming Hindus” calling for ban on the platform. His complaint listed popular Netflix original series Sacred Games, Leila, Ghoul and the American stand-up comedy show The Patriot Act by Hasan Minhaj, for allegedly painting an “incorrect picture of Hindus and India globally.” Earlier, a BJP leader had filed a police complaint against director Anurag Kashyap, alleging that his Sacred Games was hurting the religious sentiments of Sikhs and Hindus. Right-wing organisations also carried out a campaign on Twitter demanding a ban on these shows. Incidentally, both Sacred Games and Leila are screen adaptations of famed literary works, which have been in the public domain for long, and yet did not face any such trouble.
Though the central government had told Delhi High Court last year that it did not intend to censor online content, there are reports that top officials at I&B ministry will meet with representatives from OTT platforms, members of civil society, media, ISPs and legal experts to discuss ways of censoring online content. The “reform” is being carried in the guise of the measures to control piracy under the Cinematograph Act. It’s clear that criticisms from the organisations affiliated to the ruling party are behind the move.
The board, to its credit, has some history of standing up for freedom of expression too, though the instances are few and far in between. In 1998, when Asha Parekh, nicknamed Ms Scissorhands for her penchant for cuts, was the chief of CBFC, the controversial lesbian film Fire by Deepa Mehta was released without a single snip. After it was forced to pull out of the theatres and referred to the Board for censoring again due to protests, they again allowed its re-release without a single cut even though right-wing organisations kept up pressure to ban the film.
Now we have reached a point where each scene that shows people smoking, drinking or driving a vehicle is superimposed with a mandatory health hazard warning and every scene involving a fight with a woman comes with a warning about the pertinent section of the law. Clearance from animal welfare board is mandatory for scenes showing animals. Such “no objection certificates” are said to be an excuse for extracting money from filmmakers who are forced to bribe under pressure to get the necessary clearance from government bodies in time. As this trend continues to grow and reach higher proportions, all we get to watch will be warnings and social messages, and very less of creative work, with muted dialogues and blurred images.
CBFC recently unveiled its new logo and updated certificate design at a star-studded event presided over by the I&B minister, which is ample proof for the fact that the body is here to stay and is going to get stronger. One can only hope that the CBFC revamp goes beyond just look and feel and changes its overall outlook about cinema. It’s time to amend the cinematograph act, but with a progressive outlook to advance the art and the business. Most of the films in USA, for example, follow the voluntary (not enforced by law) Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) parental guidance (PG) film rating system to rate a film's suitability for certain audiences based on its content. Producers can choose to exhibit their films even if the film is not rated. Though not the ideal model, The MPAA rating system is one of the popular rating systems intended to help parents decide what films are appropriate for their underage children. In the Indian scenario, the first thing the government should stop doing is treating adult audiences like kids who need parental guidance. It’s okay to certify films as not suited for children, but it’s criminal to harass filmmakers in the name of certification, disfigure a work of art through mindless cuts, beeping out or blurring, and outrightly ban films.
(The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Views expressed are personal)