Mumbai: A mid-afternoon session at the on-going FICCI-Frames trade event on the impact of film certification on creativity was typically inconclusive, proving that while the issue of who decides what we are allowed to watch in movie halls makes for good copy, the debate is far too complex to be summarised in a panel discussion.

Titled “Cuts So Deep-Are We Sacrificing Creativity at the Altar of Morality", the discussion was moderated by filmmaker Sudhir Mishra and included actor Kajol, filmmaker Ramesh Sippy and Film Federation of India chairperson Ravi Kottarakara as panellists. The star guest, however, was Rakesh Kumar, the recently appointed chief executive officer (CEO) of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), whose facial expression alternated between consternation and terror and who looked as though he would rather be elsewhere.

Mishra opened the discussion by erroneously stating that “Nowhere in the world are you allowed to delete anything," (several Arab and Asian countries and even the odd European nation routinely impose cuts on movies) and went on to emphasise the need to appropriately certify films rather than censor the material. Sippy pointed out at this juncture that the Supreme Court of India had ruled in a case involving the politically themed movie Aarakshan that once the CBFC has certified a film, it should be allowed to run in theatres without outside interference.

Two concerns emerged out of the unstructured discussion. One was the CBFC’s tendency to hand out Adult certificates that makes it difficult for them to be shown on television, which prefers U-rated content. The other concern is over the several disclaimers that need to run before and during a film, especially the ‘Cigarette smoking is injurious to health’ directive. This health warning scroll, which pops up at the bottom of the screen in any scene that has even a hint of smoking, has been the bane of the movie business. Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap is currently battling the CBFC and the Union Health Ministry, which has mandated this warning, to prevent the scroll from running through his new film Ugly in court.

Ravi Kottarakara, the self-appointed clown of the panel (there is always one such character in film-themed discussions), pointed out that the prevailing hyper-sensitive atmosphere was forcing filmmakers to think twice about adapting the Ramayana for the screen. Iconic moments from the ancient epic would be misunderstood, he said—the dance of the celestial nymphs would be labelled an item number, a character imbibing alcohol would invite a health warning scroll, and the abduction of Sita by Ravana in his heavenly bird-steered chariot would not be possible since the birds would have to be graphically recreated. (Animal Welfare Board of India guidelines make it extremely difficult to shoot with real animals and birds.)

Loud applause followed Kottarakara’s jokey critique of the many ways in which censorship curbs creativity. Kumar’s defence, that the CBFC certifies rather than censors, cut little ice with the crowd. Sippy, who protectively answered several questions on Kumar’s behalf and spared the CEO the difficult task of defending his organisation, pointed out the guidelines governing the CBFC’s conduct need to be revised—the Cinematograph Act dates back to 1952, and a proposed new bill will have to be debated by the new government in Parliament. “Rakesh (Kumar) is in a very odd situation—on the one hand we have archaic guidelines that were set up 60 years ago, but we also have a very complex country," pointed out Sippy.

This complexity of India, in which offense is quickly and publically taken, and where any act of creativity upset somebody or the other, didn’t enter the realm of the debate. Neither the panellists nor the audience members acknowledged the success of pressure groups claiming to represent community interests in restricting or excising material they disagree with. The CBFC’s examining committee members—the men and women who decide on how a film is to be certified—often share the conservative views of these pressure groups, and it’s no secret that the CBFC is packed not with cineastes but with members of various political parties, who see themselves as guardians of public morality. Mishra, seeking some kind of a commitment from Kumar, wanted to know if the CBFC would be revising its recruitment methods and getting films certified by people who actually understood the nuances of filmmaking. “We have a notion of certification, but the members of the committee should be chosen with great care and according to a set of guidelines," said Mishra. Kumar said he couldn’t comment on the recruitment process, and Sippy, once again lunging to his rescue, said, “Let me save him again, he hasn’t chosen them and he is an awkward position."

Ultimately, it was all a bit aimless and hollow. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which governs the CBFC, is on lockdown mode because of the code of conduct ahead of the upcoming Parliamentary election. No files will move and no commitment will be undertaken until a new government is sworn in. If a Narendra Modi-led economically progressive but culturally conservative government comes to power, there is no telling what shape the CBFC will take. Will it prefer censorship over certification? Will it allow politically difficult or sexually mature cinema to reach audiences unhindered? Will it start cracking down on difficult material in the name of protecting Indian (read Hindu) values? Such far-reaching questions were unfortunately not within the scope of this discussion.