June 15, 2010

The Censure Board Of India

Cinema’s freedoms will see more curbs than less if the draft amendments to the Cinematograph Act take effect

List Of Objections
  • Why have censorship? Just certify films as age appropriate
  • There should be a distinction between documentary films and feature films
  • The proposed amendments to the Cinematograph Act prohibit private screenings without certification
  • Let documentary films be treated on par with journalism and the Press Council of India certify such films instead of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)
  • Make the CBFC appointments transparent and apolitical
“No DVD of a television programme or a documentary can be screened in any college or university or a cultural centre without a censor certificate. Why? If ideas cannot be debated and shared at such intellectual institutions, where else? Who are the censors trying to insulate from ideas and information, and why?”
—Rakesh Sharma, filmmaker
Five decades after the Cinematograph Act (1952) was passed, the government has plans to amend it. But filmmakers expecting a wave of liberalism that will free cinema from the shackles of mindless censorship are in for a rude shock. The Draft Cinematograph Bill, which has been circulated to elicit public opinion, seeks to put in more checks and elaborate penalties for transgressions than the filmmakers ever imagined.

Besides theatre releases, documentaries which had earlier enjoyed the benefit of private screenings will now be required to get a certification before they are exhibited anywhere. In a sweeping definition, the draft of the act defines “place” as a house, building or a tent, in short wherever the film is being exhibited. So, if a person makes a film about one’s neighbourhood and wishes to screen it for his neighbours in his house or in a neighbourhood auditorium, such a film would come under the purview of the Cinematograph Act. In effect, this means there can be no private screenings in, say, Delhi’s India International Centre or any cultural forum or educational institution unless the film has been certified, read censored, by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

“It’s absurd to talk censorship in this day and age. One can at best attach a statutory warning, if required.”Sudhir Mishra, Filmmaker

No wonder then that the CBFC, the body set up by the government to certify films, is called the Censor Board. It censors first and certifies a film later. Says filmmaker Shyam Benegal: “Films only require certification. The idea of censoring is basically to prevent it from being shown. There are many grey areas in the act that require clarification.” Filmmaker Rakesh Sharma fears that if the draft act goes through, it would have dangerous consequences. “You can’t screen the film in your neighbourhood college, or show it to 30-40 people on a big television in your local society compound or community hall; any cop can arrest you for a ‘public screening’ without a censor certificate,” he says. 

Under Clause 18 of the proposed amended act, if a film is exhibited in contravention of the act, any police officer may enter any place where he has reason to believe that such a film has been or is being or is likely to be exhibited, search it and seize the film. “You can be arrested if you document local tribal songs or make a short film about what to do if a company (read state-backed corporates) encroaches your ancestral land—there may be that added bonus of being termed a Maoist, if the local cops and vigilantes want to fix you,” says Sharma.

According to filmmakers, the Union ministry of information and broadcasting wants documentaries to be certified because of the marked political content in some of them. “We had all hoped for less censorship, not more. And as a filmmaker, I had hoped that the government would have considered documentaries as a part of the public’s right to information, now constitutionally guaranteed as well,” says Sharma. A view shared by director Sudhir Mishra, who says, “In this age and time, it is absurd to talk censorship. One can at best attach a statutory warning, if at all required. Just give a rating to forewarn people what to expect.”
Anand Patwardhan’s Ram ke Naam
Much of the confusion arises because of a lack of distinction between feature films meant for theatre release and documentary films. There is a school of filmmakers, including Mishra, who feel that documentary films should be treated on par with journalism and should have the Press Council of India instead of the CBFC to decide on complaints following the release of a film. “Gossip journalism does not detract from serious writing. So is the case with cinema. Why should it be subject to censorship?” asks Mishra.

“Films only require certification. The idea of censoring is just to prevent it from being shown.”Shyam Benegal, Filmmaker

Filmmaker Vijay Anand, who took over as chairman of the CBFC in 2001, wanted to amend the Cinematograph Act and do away with censorship. But whenever such attempts have been made, the government of the day has retained the right to censor by stacking their own partymen on the board. While the government has absolute powers to appoint the chairperson and not more than 25 members to the censor board, many question the lack of transparency in the appointments and have asked for the panel to be politician-free. 

Another lacuna in the proposed amendments relates to the criminalisation of the unauthorised copying of a negative or of a film. Since it is already covered under the Copyright Act, critics wonder why the CBFC needed to come into the picture as well. This would mean two authorities looking at the same crime, creating only confusion and duplication.

Meanwhile, in a letter dated April 23, 2010, to the I&Bb ministry, endorsed by over 30 filmmakers, questions have been raised on the wisdom of many of the new clauses. The letter states, “The proposed bill makes no distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ exhibitions and does not attempt to define what constitutes a ‘public’ or ‘private’ exhibition. Such a broad definition of exhibition includes educational institutions, independent cultural centres, exhibitions meant for scientific purposes.” Further, the letter points out that the proposed bill does not differentiate at all between fictional and non-fictional films such as documentaries. Documentaries highlight issues which might be necessarily controversial but cannot be ignored. A debate on such issues, say the signatories to the letter, is vital and necessary, and giving CBFC the right to regulate such non-fictional films means a direct restriction on political debate. The board, they assert, can’t be given blanket powers of refusal just on the basis of a matter of opinion. Freedom lies in objectivity.