How Ministry of Defence’s demand to vet films on Army comes as yet another blow to hopes of reforms at CBFC

The latest attack on freedom of expression launched by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) with its letter to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) demanding that any film depicting military personnel in uniform will have to seek an NOC (no objection certificate) from the ministry has confounded the industry and its audience. This, from a government that promised “minimum government, maximum governance” and sitting on two committee reports calling for loosening up the stranglehold censorship has on films made or exhibited in the country, is rather shocking.  MoD’s letter, if anything, raises a plethora of questions and calls for a closer look at functioning of CBFC and the efforts to reform it.

Since its inception in 1952, the film certification system in India remains an intractable monolith, a bureaucratic maze which every filmmaker must find his or her way to negotiate. In the Indian context, the concept of film certification is regularly conflated with censorship – primarily because a large majority of films are pruned by the Indian state to make them ‘fit for certification’. Thus, in practice, film certification and film censorship have become synonymous; and censorship, not the classification of films, has become the dominant aim of the Indian State. Critics, commentators, and filmmakers have been largely unanimous in describing the censorship apparatus as a vexing social and juridical issue, as well as the biggest impediment to creative expression in Indian cinema.

Recognising this, to its credit, the Indian governments have attempted to address the issue at different points of time. Remarkable among these exercises undertaken are the three committees set up to devise a mechanism to reform the process, namely, the Enquiry Committee on Film Censorship under Justice G D Khosla (1969), the Justice Mudgal Committee (2013) and the Shyam Benegal Committee (2017). However, the intent never translated into execution and the reports of these committees remained just on paper.

A behemoth, CBFC is headed by a government-appointed chairperson and has 25 members, each with a tenure of three years. It has nine regional offices spread across India, with each regional chapter having dozens of advisory panel members. Members of these panels constitute what is called the ‘examining committee’ – a body usually comprising two to five individuals.

It is this examining committee, which has the crucial mandate of certifying films, with or without cuts. Based on this committee’s assessment of a film, a certificate is issued, in the name of the CBFC chairperson. The certificate classifies the film as U (unrestricted viewing), UA (parental guidance required for children below 12 years in age), A (adults only) and S (for restricted audience).

A filmmaker unhappy with the decision of the examining committee can challenge it before a ‘revising committee’, which has a different set of people on board, at least one of whom is part of the 25-member central board. The revising committee, then scrutinises if the examining committee is justified in its call and is empowered to grant relief to the aggrieved filmmaker by partly or wholly revising the examining committee’s order.

However, every year, each of CBFC’s regional offices register several cases of filmmakers displeased with the revising committee’s decision too. This leads to the third tier of redressal – the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) – a quasi-judicial body functioning under the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Once the filmmaker exhausts this option too, his/her next recourse is approaching a constitutional body such as the high courts or the Supreme Court.

The central government’s stranglehold on CBFC with the powers to overturn decisions taken by its examining committee, revising committee and even that of FCAT, has only made the film-making community wary of it. They have come to view the appellate mechanisms within CBFC more as additional hurdles, rather than embedded checks and balances in the censorship apparatus.

A recurrent demand of the fraternity has been to contain CBFC’s role to certification and categorisation of films based on target audience and demography, as is the practice in mature democracies, shedding the paternalistic approach to censoring and seeking amendments in films. This view of restricting CBFC’s power was incorporated in a report by committee chaired by the veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal. This report struck at the very root of Indian film certification, diluting its power of ‘pre-censorship’, that was endowed by the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1952 (revised in 1982) – a power upheld by Supreme Court in a 1970 order.

The suggestion, however, seems too radical for the Indian State which has been resistant to relinquishing this power by effecting a fundamental amendment to The Indian Cinematograph Act. Instead, it may be more amenable to adopting a simplification of the three-tier process as mooted by the Mudgal Committee, which has attacked the selection of people who constitute the advisory panels at each regional office. The committee found many members of these panels bereft of any cinematic understanding, who perceived their role on the board to be one of cutting and chopping scenes based on their political, religious or social affiliation. The committee observed that many of their objections to verge on being outright ridiculous.

Most of these panel members were found to be lower functionaries of political parties or people posted on recommendation of social heavyweights. Reposing faith in such people to tackle complex aesthetic and ideological issues and play primary gatekeepers in the censorship hierarchy is objectionable to most filmmakers. As Sanjay Nag, a Kolkata-based filmmaker, pointed out, many of the examining committee members essentially see themselves as “cutter”, placed to enforce cuts and excisions. Prof Ira Bhaskar, a former member of CBFC, who has chaired multiple revising committee meetings, saw the problem in examining committees overreaching their power and exercising overt caution. “The common tendency is to err on the side of caution to escape accountability should offending be discovered in the film by the government later on,” she said. The sharp political polarisation in the country, the past few years, has only added to the anxiety of the examining committee members, underscored another filmmaker – Suman Ghosh.

Such is the compulsion for caution that at times the ‘cuts’ and ‘amendments’ are handed out with a consolatory message that the filmmakers have two more forums to approach to argue their case. But this pursuit is too tedious and expensive and pose huge impediments for films made on shoe-string budgets. Hiring auditoriums for re-screening of their films, especially in far off Delhi (for regional filmmakers) is not easy. While the exercise was fruitful for filmmaker Suman Mukhopadhyay, with FCAT ruling in his favour on his film Kangal Malshat (2013), he pointed out that he was able to pull it off only courtesy his producer’s support, though his was an ultra-low budget film.

To assuage the censors’ scouting for material to cut, filmmakers have started embedding ‘red herrings’ in their films, drawing them away from more critical content, informed Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker Pankaj Rishikumar. Also, most filmmakers observe that given their constitution, the examining committee and revising committee are not very different from each other, reinforcing their demand for qualitative change to advisory panels and for merger of the two committees.

For its part, the Mudgal Committee has called for rechristening the advisory panels as screening panels. It has urged that a nine-member committee be set up with representation for diverse language with at least two women on board. This committee would then appoint a voluminous panel of members drawn from variant backgrounds, in terms of educational qualification, profession, association with the arts, literature, history, sociology, psychology and the media, law and public administration, who are deemed fit to judge the impact of the film on public consciousness.

Justice Mudgal also sought introduction of certain basic criteria in terms of education, language skills and expertise in the appointment of regional officers, who are presently deployed from middle-level bureaucracy for fixed tenure of three-five years. As chief executive of the regional offices they play a critical role coordinating between filmmakers and the advisory panels, and convening of examining committee meetings, wielding a lot of influence.

It is believed that these recommendations of the Mudgal Committee can be easily carried through and if done, it will engender an unbiased, aesthetically sensitive and socially conscious examining committee with the ability to understand a filmmaker’s view of the world and that of the civil society, striking a balance between the two. This will, in effect, whittle down the number of filmmakers appealing against the board’s decision. Most observers, including Dr Lalit Bhasin, senior Supreme Court advocate, former chairperson of FCAT and a member of the Mudgal Committee, vouch that it would be a more pragmatic approach to tackling country’s censorship issue, without demanding too much of the ruling dispensation.

However, the MoD letter has come as a huge disappointment to the people clinging to the hope that the Mudgal Committee report, if not the Shyam Benegal Committee report, would be actioned by Mr Modi’s government, based on the assurance of ‘minimum government’. The new diktat is clearly a walk in the opposite direction, which can set a precedent for other groups or bodies to seek a say in a film’s content, killing all creative endeavours.

Dr Indranil Bhattacharya is a film historian and a researcher. The opinions expressed are personal.

Representational image via WikimediaCommons

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