Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Time to put an end to film censorship

The Shyam Benegal committee's report is a step in the right direction

When the credits rolled over Sholay’s powerfully ambiguous ending—Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur on his knees beside the body of the man he had just killed, Amjad Khan’s Gabbar Singh, weeping in despair—Ramesh Sippy had established his film as perhaps the most iconic representation of Indian popular cinema in the public consciousness.

Save that it didn’t quite turn out that way. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) deemed the idea that a police officer would violate the law and kill a man in this fashion distasteful. It demanded that the ending be changed. A furious Sippy complied and shot the anodyne sequence everyone knows; the police arrive in time to prevent Gabbar Singh’s murder and arrest him instead. Sholay had enough going for it to survive the hit mostly unscathed—but Sippy’s authorial vision had been violated.

The Shyam Benegal committee on film certification goes a long way towards addressing such overreach in its report submitted earlier this week. Its central recommendation—that the CBFC’s role should be restricted to certifying films for age-appropriate viewing—is a long overdue reform. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and information and broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley did well to recognize this and set up the committee.

The Cinematograph Act and Cinematograph Rules under which the CBFC functions date back to 1952 and 1983, respectively. A passage of a 1989 Supreme Court judgement that is often quoted as a mission statement of sorts can be found on the CBFC website. It says in part: “The combination of act and speech, sight and sound... will have a strong impact on the minds of the viewers and can affect emotions. Therefore, it has… potential for evil… Censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary.’’

The underlying theme—one that has coloured successive governments’ approach to Indian cinema—is fear of the audience. That made eminent sense at the time of the film industry’s birth. Cinema was a powerful new medium; the colonial administration that first introduced film censorship feared that it would be used to spread subversive messages just as other art forms had been co-opted by nationalists. It could, perhaps, be explained in the post-1947 period by the zeal of a governing order overseeing a new nation with a sense of identity damaged by partition.

But it should have been abandoned in the decades since. A look at some of the movies banned over the years show that has not been the case—from Deepa Mehta’s Fire exploring a lesbian relationship between sisters-in-law to Shonali Bose’s Amu on the massacre of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination to Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan and Anand Patwardhan’s documentaries. So does the fact that even those movies that are certified ‘Adults’ are often forced to make cuts. This fear of adverse political messaging and of the transgression of sociocultural norms has created a vicious cycle. Communities and political parties that feel aggrieved by a particular film have seized upon it, and various governments have obliged, reinforcing the message.

The resulting paternalism is increasingly unviable. Technology has fragmented the means of accessing cinema, Indian and foreign, beyond the CBFC’s ability to control. Streaming services, pirate networks and filmmakers who use non-formal avenues such as the Internet for distribution have all contributed here. Its continuing the attempt regardless speaks more to a desire to assert state authority by defining what is publicly kosher than any true effort to control what people see. And it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding: cinema is not meant to abide by norms. Films like Costa-Gavras’s Z and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange show the merit of questioning them. The justice Mukul Mudgal committee report recognized as much when it said in 2013 that interpreting a film is an individual act, vexing any attempt to administrate it from a collective perspective.

If the Shyam Benegal committee report’s recommendations are implemented, it will be a substantial step towards addressing these issues, allied with the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that states can’t ban films cleared by the CBFC. But it is only a halfway house. The report has spoken of depoliticizing the CBFC—difficult when the body remains under government control. In the US, the rating system is overseen by an industry body. The difference in the potential box-office earnings of films rated for general and mature audiences allows filmmakers to make decisions based on market logic, not because they have been instructed to do so. There is no reason not to work towards a similar system in India.

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