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The recent move by the ministry of law and justice to abolish the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) has left the movie industry dismayed. Film-makers fear they will get no hearing and will have to bow to the diktats of the censor board while legal experts point to the possible lack of understanding and time among courts which do not have background in cinema and are already handling multiple cases.

FCAT, a statutory body, was constituted via the Cinematograph Act, 1952, by the ministry of information and broadcasting, to hear appeals in respect of an applicant aggrieved by an order of the Central Board of Film Certification, or the CBFC.

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Earlier this week, the central government notified the Tribunals Reforms (Rationalization and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2021, to dissolve certain existing appellate bodies and transfer their functions to other existing judicial bodies. Film-makers not satisfied with the decision of the CBFC will now have to move the concerned high court. The tribunal that had its headquarters in New Delhi, was headed by a chairperson assisted by four members, while a secretary was appointed by the government of India to look after day-to-day affairs.

“We have no idea how the government came up with this suddenly without any discussion with the fraternity," said a film-maker who declined to be named. While most films are passed by the censor board itself with suggestions or modifications, the person said it would be interesting to see if the government supplements this abolition with a new set of content guidelines for films or with a larger body that would oversee both theatrical and web content since the intent seems to be to control programming across media platforms.

This February, the Indian government had tightened its control over digital news media and OTT (over-the-top) video streaming platforms, introducing a three-tier mechanism and terming it as a "soft-touch regulatory architecture". While the first two tiers bring in place a system of self-regulation by the platform itself and by the self-regulatory bodies of content publishers, the third calls for an oversight mechanism by the Centre. These guidelines are called the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021.

Either way, the move reeks of control. Film-maker Vishal Bhardwaj reacted to the news on Twitter calling it "a sad day for cinema".

“Do the high courts have a lot of time to address film certification grievances? How many film producers will have the means to approach the courts? The FCAT discontinuation feels arbitrary and is definitely restrictive. Why this unfortunate timing? Why take this decision at all?" film-maker Hansal Mehta tweeted.

Chandrima Mitra, partner at DSK Legal, also pointed out that FCAT had representation more diverse than just lawyers, and therefore was in a position to have more broad-based views and appreciate the variety of issues that were before them. “Limiting powers to courts effectively takes away a right of one round of appeal for the film-makers and it adds to the caseload of courts," Mitra added.

In recent years, FCAT often overruled CFBC decisions. In 2016, CBFC had banned Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer Haraamkhor, claiming it was provocative. Producers Guneet Monga, Anurag Kashyap, and Feroze Alameer, along with director Shlok Sharma, filed a case with the FCAT, which reversed the decision; it not only cleared the film but also gave it a U/A certificate. The FCAT panel had then said the film, which revolves around the relationship of a small-town teacher and his teenage student, could be used for “furthering a social message and warning the girls to be aware of their rights".

The censor board has had a controversial record in India, particularly with the tenures of chairpersons such as Pahlaj Nihalani being criticized for attempts to sanitize art and popular culture.

“Although the trial of setting up tribunals did not fare well owing to the lack of technical expertise in the tribunal office, ranging from interruptions due to empty seats to additional operational costs, the government’s decision to abolish the FCAT (along with other tribunals) may appear to be a short-sighted move. With the increased burden and procedural delays involved in the high courts of India, the film industry loses its explicit forum of appeal against the decisions of the censor board," said Bhagyashree Madhekar, senior associate, Pioneer Legal.

“On the other hand, in light of the controversies involving the CBFC and FCAT in recent years, an independent and competent judicial view may just prove to be beneficial to all," she added.

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