The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has a new chief, but will he revive old, and best forgotten, nightmares?

That was the sense that Rakesh Kumar, CBFC’s latest chief executive officer (CEO), conveyed in his first interview to the tabloid Mumbai Mirror on Wednesday. The upshot of the no-holds-barred conversation was that Kumar, who took up his post on 3 January, felt that CBFC needs to crack the whip in the light of perceived lapses in previous months, especially an overly liberal attitude towards giving ‘UA’ (unrestricted public exhibition, but parental guidance required) certificates for adults-only movies. Private exchanges of amusement and outrage, unofficial whinging, and an official silence represented the Hindi movie industry’s response to the public relations disaster for the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which governs CBFC. The filmmakers named by Kumar in the interview, ranging from Karan Johar, producer of the UA-rated Agneepath, to Siddhartha Jain, producer of the upcoming Kill the Rapist, declined to comment.

In an interview the day after the storm broke, Kumar spoke of the need to strike a balance between the board’s duties and the industry’s needs. “I have been noticing that a lot of vulgarity and violence have crept into cinema," said the 41-year-old officer from the 1998 batch of the Indian Railway Personnel Service. “The film industry will always have issues that the CBFC is trying to act like the moral police, but my job is to find a balance between the requirements of the industry, society and the government," he said.

Kumar said he, his wife and five-year-old daughter—he repeatedly used the child as a benchmark for permissible viewing—watch films only in cinemas. During previous postings in Vadodara and Lucknow, he would travel to Mumbai and Delhi, respectively, if the latest Hollywood movie wasn’t released in his city. It’s this practice of watching movies as a family unit in a theatre rather than on DVD at home that seems to have spurred Kumar’s concern that movie-going is increasingly becoming a source of embarrassment, and that films with adult content are being smuggled in under a ‘UA’ garb. “The big trouble is with ‘UA’ content—we have to be sensitive to what is shown under the UA certificate," he said. The board will also be looking afresh at the whole business of what can be permitted in an adult film.

“We have a board meeting on 29 January in Delhi to decide on whether we should accept almost anything or we do also need checks and balances for ‘A’ certification too," Kumar said.

The CEO’s remarks are at odds with his organization’s controversial attempts in recent years to shift focus from censorship to certification. Under the aegis of honorary chairperson Leela Samson, the board has tried to live down its reputation for curbing the freedom of expression and focus instead on making the existing ratings system more effective.

As a result of the notion that Indian citizens who are legally allowed to marry and vote by the time they turn 21 can stomach strong language and sexual content, there have been many more ‘UA-’ and ‘A’-rated films in the past few years. However, no producer wants an ‘A’ film, since it automatically cuts out the lucrative family audience block even as it helps attract select segments, such as young people and adult men. Adult films also affect a vital source of revenue—television rights. Since ‘A’-rated films can be shown on television only at the advertising unfriendly slot of 11pm and afterwards (government broadcaster Doordarshan only permits U films), and the process of re-certifying a movie for television is laborious and time-consuming, both the board and producers prefer ‘UA’ certificates.

“I wish we could segment audiences better, but usually, ‘A’ films translate into bad business," said Ajit Andhare, chief operating officer of Viacom18 Motion Pictures. “We look at films as if they only play in theatres, but between 25% and 40% of revenue comes from satellite rights. The moment you have an ‘A’, whatever upside there is in the theatres becomes a downside on television. The general entertainment channel is where most of the advertising revenue comes from. Therefore, there has been a surge in the ‘UA’ certificate—it is the middle ground that tries to manage the best of both worlds."

The ‘UA’ certificate has become a factor in the negotiation of television rights, added Ruchir Tiwari, programming and Hindi movie cluster head at Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. “We avoid re-certification, and we mostly buy stuff that is either a clear ‘U’ or a ‘UA’," he said. “However, I must emphasize that no movie producer is lobbying the CBFC to get a ‘UA’ certificate only because satellite rights need to be sold."

An adult rating is hardly a free pass for filmmakers or the board, especially in a country where the sections of society that emphasize the CBFC’s beholden duty to uphold the moral order outweighs the liberal minority that wants audiences to make up their own minds. Adult-rated films such as Delhi Belly were released with no cuts in 2011, and the notorious sex comedy Grand Masti, released with minor cuts last year, attracted howls of how-could-they-allow-this protests from conservative quarters, indicating that debates that have plagued CBFC since its inception in colonial times are still raging.

Yet, the fact remains that adult-rated films, such as entries in the Raaz and Murder franchises and Grand Masti, have been performing well enough to convince at least some producers and exhibitors that the movie-going audience has matured. “The only thing an ‘A’-rated film does is segregate your audience, it doesn’t cut it out totally," pointed out Akshaye Rathi, a director of Vidharbha Exhibitors Pvt. Ltd and Saroj Screens Pvt. Ltd, which own 23 single screen cinemas in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and handles the programming for over 100 other theatres. “As a market for adult rated films, India is coming of age—for Grand Masti, for instance, I had a lot of groups of college students. It was also a pleasant surprise to see so many women—I had many aunty types laughing hysterically at the movie. It’s a family film, in a sense, only you don’t watch it together."

The definition of ‘A’ versus ‘UA’ content is wide open to interpretation, and often can be a function of which group of censors has been selected for the rating process. “There are members who are so conservative that as soon as they see a kiss, they want an ‘A’ certificate," said a CBFC member from Mumbai who asked not to be identified. “The intent of the filmmaker is what hangs on a sword—is it to titillate or to depict a romance? There is a great deal of subjectivity within the committee certifying a film—it all depends on what kind of a group you get. Also, you have to see a scene within the larger context of the film, and that doesn’t always happen."

The perception that the wrong kind of people are certifying our films seems to be shared by Samson, who kicked up a row some months ago by declaring that a majority of the censors were “uneducated" and an “embarrassment". Samson, who has repeatedly declined to be interviewed by this newspaper, later withdrew her remarks and issued an apology. Her term ends in April.

There are larger problems facing CBFC than a perceived collapse in the moral order. There have been allegations that members of the board’s Mumbai office take bribes in order to be lenient with films. The Mumbai office also has a tremendous backlog, which has led to delays in the release of promotional trailers and movies in theatres and on television and DVD.

“Instead of four examining officers, we have only two, and this has cut down our efficiency by 50%," Kumar said. “We have a backlog of at least 200 movies, but I hope to clear that by the end of the month." He also assured action over allegations of graft and favouritism. “I am going to implement a very strict roster system," Kumar said. “This will take care of the fact that earlier, officers picked and chose the people who would be certifying a film, but now it will be as per a roster system, which will ensure that we don’t know which film comes to which committee."

He also promised an online application system to quicken the clearance of trailers that need to be shown on television.

He doesn’t expect to be liked, though.

“Nobody likes to be controlled—I am there to take the flak," Kumar said. “It goes with the job."

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