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NEW DELHI: As the fear of creative liberties being curtailed gains ground, film producers and content studios are equally wary of the business and economic implications of the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021 proposed by the information and broadcasting ministry recently.

Re-examining films already passed by the censor board and the possibility of not being cleared for release may add to costs of studios that begin marketing and promotional campaigns several weeks in advance. These films may further not even find buyers on OTT (over-the-top) streaming platforms that are already scrutinising content under the new IT Rules.

Even satellite TV channels are unlikely to pick them as they prefer ‘U’ rated content (universal certification clears it for everyone to watch). Foreign studios that have increasingly seen India as a lucrative market may also be discouraged from investing here given these uncertainties around certification.

“It will be like a sword dangling for producers especially at a time when the lockdown and pandemic have already hindered content creation and escalated costs," said a senior executive at a film studio.

The proposal that lacks logic and business merit is essentially creating risk around any product and compelling producers to believe their films may well be shelved if the political machinery deems it problematic, the person added.

Apart from marketing and promotional expenses that may already be playing out for ready films, fighting the government may require additional spends on legal advice for a studio. “These films will also not have value for satellite TV channels that are anyway clear they prefer films with a ‘U’ or ‘U/A’ certificate. While one thinks that digital platforms could come to the rescue of niche, experimental films, if there are controversies, those services will also avoid the concerned titles now," the person said. Apart from this, pirated prints of controversial films could start circulating, adding to India’s massive piracy challenge that, ironically, the Amendment itself seeks to address.

The Draft Bill’s proposal to grant the central government enhanced revisional powers to send a film back to the CBFC for re-examination after certification, raises valid concerns, agreed Ranjana Adhikari, partner - media, entertainment and gaming with the TMT Practice group of IndusLaw.

“Usually, theatrical releases and their dates are sacrosanct for an Indian film. Granting a certificate to a film not only helps finalise the theatrical release plan but also gives visibility to the complete set of downline right holders on their windows of exploitation, thereby helping them plan their respective premieres. The Draft Bill also does not clarify the number of times the central government could request re-examination or what an OTT platform would need to do if a film is sent for re-examination after it has begun streaming it or the timeline up till which such revisional powers would be applicable, thereby potentially opening up a pandora’s box," Adhikari said.

Siddharth Mahajan, partner at legal firm Athena Legal said the re-examining clause could lead to uncertainty for producers since re-examination can occur even after the release of the film. If the central government receives any references regarding the film, the producer could be directed to make changes or alterations to a certified film. “This coupled with the fact that the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, a statutory body to hear appeals against the orders of CBFC has been abolished recently and any filmmaker not satisfied with the order of CBFC has to approach the high court, which could lead to further delays and costs in addition to potential loss of profits due to delayed release," Mahajan said.

The studio executive agreed the proposals have to be seen in conjunction with the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, that came into force this February after OTT services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video battled controversies over inappropriate content. Like the IT Rules, the Cinematograph Amendment Bill seeks to subdivide film certification into age-based categories, such as U/A 7+, U/A 13+ and U/A 16+. “It may require people to go with IDs and make the experience cumbersome. The smaller theatres, especially single screens may be in fear of raids or shutting down," the producer said.

Independent Bihar-based exhibitor Vishek Chauhan who agreed most people in small towns do not follow age limits for adult films, said the only option for theatres is to refund ticket prices or let people go in. “Theatres will become more dependent on the blockbuster, mainstream kind of entertainment that plays it safe," Chauhan said.

Film writer Mayur Puri said the issue is one of dangerous intimidation and that no such law exists even in countries like China or north Korea that are considered restrictive. “It may appear superfluous and unnecessary to foreign studios or global companies who do not have to deal with such things in their own countries," Puri said adding that nobody wants to invest in a business that is uncertain.

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