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New Delhi: The Central Board of Film Certification is there to certify films, not censor them. That’s one argument that’s often been voiced, especially in recent days, as the controversy over Udta Punjab has played out. Now that the Bombay high court has delivered a potentially trend-setting and fair judgement on this issue, it’s time to look at the original question?

When did the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) begin working like a censor board?

As it turns out, from the time it started certifying films.

The CBFC is a body constituted under the Cinematograph Act, 1952. Indeed, when it was created it was called the Board of Film Censors. Its powers of certifying a film for public consumption was introduced by way of an amendment in 1959.

The Cinematograph Act prescribes that all movies aimed at “public exhibition" will be first examined by the CBFC. The Board can ask for parts of the movie to be cut or removed before showcasing it in public in case it is “against the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence".

This power to censor, was justified by the apex court when it said the CBFC had the right to ask for cuts while certifying a film. The question was decided by the Supreme Court, in the case of K.A. Abbas versus Union of India, in September 1970. That case involved Abbas’ documentary A Tale of Four Cities in which the CBFC asked for certain scenes to be cut. The award-winning filmmaker approached the Supreme Court saying the cuts asked for amounted to a violation of his freedom of expression.

The court (in a judgement delivered by then chief justice Mohammad Hidayatullah) approved of censorship and noted in its judgement, “Our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read. The standards that we set for our censors must make a substantial allowance in favour of freedom thus leaving a vast area for creative art to interpret life and society with some of its foibles along with what is good."

The court said films were a powerful media and had greater impact than books. It ruled that censorship, including cutting parts of movies before public release, was valid under the Constitution.

It also ruled that in the absence of any self-regulatory organization that could suggest or ask for cuts in films, it was up to the government appointed CBFC to do so.

The CBFC’s role has come under scrutiny over the last few days regarding the release of the movie Udta Punjab, in which it asked for cuts, including removal of all references to the state and its cities. The petitioner before the Bombay high court, co-producer Phantom Films, said that the CBFC was not acting like the certifying authority that it was, but as a censor board.

The Bombay high court asked the CBFC to not be over-sensitive in matters of art and asked that the film be cleared with minor cut.

Could this mean another redefinition in CBFC’s role ?

We will have to wait and see.

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