As the head of a committee formed in January, Benegal was given the task of rethinking the powers, functioning and composition of CBFC, popularly known as the censor board, following the growing disquiet over the arbitrary scissoring adopted by the board. Benegal’s recommendations focus on certification instead of censorship and call for re-examining how members to the board are appointed.
The 81-year-old filmmaker, known for spearheading the “parallel cinema movement" of the 1970s and the ’80s through films like Ankur (1974) and Mandi (1983), among others, spoke about the benefits of certification for artistes and audiences alike and the challenges of working with and within the brief provided to his panel.
How would you explain to a lay person your argument against censorship and in favour of certification?
There are two very simple things. The creative person who has the ownership right of the film, it is for that person or institution to change or remove portions from it and reshape it. It is not the right of the person who classifies or certifies it. So the Central Board of Film Certification should keep within the bounds of its job, which is to certify and classify films according to the age and maturity of audiences.
What were the challenges before the committee?
There were challenges because I’ve never been in favour of tampering with anybody else’s work. I believed that then, I believe it today. Which is why I said that this application of scissors should not be allowed at all, particularly for the film certification board. If the person who’s made the film and has the rights over it, wishes to do that, it is his prerogative. But it is neither your right nor your prerogative to do so.
What perspective did you get from the government?
I don’t think they gave us a brief of that sort. It was very simple. They just wanted us to look at the formation of the examining committee, revising committee and their composition, the procedures being adopted for the certification of original and dubbed versions of films and their re-certification for different platforms like television. We were to study the various directives of courts with respect to certification of films as well as notifications issued to other government agencies having an impact on the certification process and recommend a broad guideline for the board within the ambit of the existing provisions of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, and Cinematograph Certification Rules of 1983. The idea was also to ensure CBFC is not being seen as an arm-twisting body.
One of the recommendations says that the director’s original version will be submitted to the National Film Archive. How does it help when no one can see it?
The original film, the way it was creatively conceived and executed, a copy of that should be with the National Film Archive simply because that is the original. Whether it is shown that way to the audience or not is another matter. Societal mores and attitudes are not the same all the time. So a particular piece of work that may not have passed muster 50 years ago probably passes muster today. There is a lot of work of that nature, like paintings that may have been considered obscene at certain stages.
The National Film Archive is a record. It’s not designed for public screenings. It’s meant for students of history and cinema. Like the National Archives itself are a record of all the things that have happened. And in the case of the film archives, all the films that were made from the beginning to now. Because that tells you the story of how things change, what society is thinking, how the concepts of art and aesthetics are changing and evolving. It is not to be mixed up with film as entertainment. They are two different things.
How do these guidelines help the Indian movie-going audience?
They have a choice. They can choose to watch a film or not. If a film is socially offensive to you, if it causes animosity between two entities, if it is socially detrimental to the country, or something like that, even before the audience sees it, it may have already been seen by CBFC and it may already have a reason to either prevent it from being seen or restrict its viewing or maybe ban it altogether. Those are possibilities.
What has been your personal experience with the censor board?
I’ve had my ups-and-downs with the censor board over a period of time. Because there have been films where I’ve disagreed with them when it came to certification. Also because you have to look at the social nature of the country. In the 1970s, if you gave an ‘A’ certificate to a film, it would automatically mean that women would not go watch it because they would think it wasn’t suitable for family audiences.
Bhumika (a Smita Patil-starrer released in 1977 on the life of Marathi actor Hansa Wadkar who led a highly unconventional life) was given an ‘A’ certificate and cuts were demanded. I totally disagreed. Bhumika was a film that would be of great interest to women. I took it all the way to the ministry (of information and broadcasting) because they just wouldn’t relent.
Bhumika happened to be the story of a woman who had a very troubled life, especially when it came to her relationships with men. Now you can give it an ‘A’ certificate but not make it seem like a film where there is obscenity or explicit sex or violence of a frightening kind, because there was none. The basis of your certification has to be the basis of a lot of other things, so there has to be a viewpoint.
But Indian film industry always has problems...
Those problems will always be there. India is a very diverse country and people have all kinds of views. Some of them are related to the social class they belong to, or their being rural or urban or their attitude to life being caste-, community- or religion-related. You have to accept that these things happen in our country and take a view that is as inclusive as possible.