Throughout history, art’s attempts to break society’s shackles and society’s attempts at shackling art have been in keen contest. That contest continues, with authoritarian regimes such as the one in China routinely banning films even mildly disrespectful of the government.
In the world’s largest democracy, matters may not have reached that stage yet. However, there are disquieting signs already. A Mint analysis of data from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) shows that censorship has scaled a new peak, with the proportion of films without cuts falling to the century’s lowest levels in 2016-17, the latest year for which data is available. The findings only reinforce the growing criticism of the way the CBFC, or the censor board, has been run. The CBFC has made news for all the wrong reasons in recent times, taking objection to swear words (in Veere di Wedding), drugs (Udta Punjab), or even women expressing sexual desire (Lipstick Under My Burkha).
The CBFC chairperson who has received the greatest flak in recent times is the former CBFC chairman, Pahlaj Nihalani. The data shows that censorship peaked in his tenure. In the two years that Nihalani was the censor chief (roughly corresponding to March 2015-March 2017), more than half of all films released were cleared after cuts, the highest proportion in the last decade.
However, the censor board’s control over films has been growing even before Nihalani’s tenure, data shows. This is reflected in the falling proportion of U-rated films: films that are deemed to be acceptable to a universal audience.
The proportion of A-rated movies now is also less, about one in five, down from one in three at the start of the century with the number of UA films rivalling U films in the last five years.
How do these trends translate across languages? There are regional differences when it comes to censorship. The nine regional CBFC offices across India decide the certification and cuts to be made, with Hindi films primarily going to the Mumbai office, Tamil films to Chennai and so on.
Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films see the maximum number of movies released with cuts compared to Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi or Bengali.
In the last five years, only one out of every three films in each of these southern industries was cleared without any cuts across U, UA and A certificates.
Hindi, Telugu and Bengali films have had the highest proportion of A-rated releases in the past five years. Combined, more than half of all A-rated films released in India are released in these three languages.
What explains these trends? “There is societal diversity in these regional certification panels. Different societies have different standards for what is considered acceptable. For example, what is considered universal in Malayalam cinema might be certified as adult elsewhere," said Shyam Benegal, film director and chairperson of the committee on censorship set up by the information and broadcasting ministry in 2016, in the wake of growing criticisms of the censor regime.
While societal standards are one explanation, there could be an economic reason behind the certifications issued as well. For instance, the government of Tamil Nadu provided tax breaks to film makers if their film was rated U and had a Tamil title. This has the effect of the state encroaching on the CBFC’s purview and creating perverse incentives for film directors to tweak their films. The Shyam Benegal committee described this as “coercive" and a manipulation of law.
“The censor board should just certify and not censor. Pre-censorship is even less meaningful than ever before. Television, which is more pervasive, is self-regulated and there has been no observed change in social behaviour due to unrestricted exhibition on TV. Why should cinema be any different?" Benegal asks. His committee recommended several reforms ranging from newer categories of certification to institutional changes such as changes in the structure of certification panels with greater representation of society.
Benegal and other notable filmmakers have suggested similar reforms even earlier. In an interview to News18.com, the renowned Malayalee film-maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan recounted how along with Benegal and Mrinal Sen, he had been part of a film committee in 1979 and that the trio had decided to recommend that censorship be abolished in cinema.
However, the recommendation found few takers, with ‘commercial’ movie-makers mounting the greatest opposition. “When the time for the final decision came, there was a strong plea from both Ramanand Sagar and B.R. Chopra against it. They said censorship gives protection from unnecessary legal battles over films. So the recommendation couldn’t be made," Gopalakrishnan said in the interview.
Though more filmmakers are now critical of the censor board than before, it is possible that an influential section still views the censor board as a shield rather than a hurdle for them.