The certification--and censorship--of films is too serious a business to be left to the likes and dislikes of politicians. Yet, that is precisely what is happening in India with the Narendra Modi government appointing nine new members to the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC), most of whom are either functionaries and representatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or individuals who have campaigned for Narendra Modi in the 2014 election.
The new chairman, Pahalaj Nihalani is the man behind the hagiographical election song 'Har har Modi' and at least one of the new members, Ashok Bhat, has publicly stated that Vishal Bharadwaj's critically acclaimed film, Haider, should not have been certified because it shows the Indian Army in bad light.
When the minister of state for Information and Broadcasting was asked by NDTV which of the new members were not associated with the BJP, he couldn't come up with a single name.
With men and women like this serving as cinematic gatekeepers, film censorship will become the continuation of politics by other means. In cultural terms, this means barren times lie ahead for filmmakers and audiences alike. The boundaries of what is "offensive", particularly to the majoritarian sensibilities of the sangh parivar, are likely to be drawn pretty expansively. Films that explore political or social themes can expect to be put through the wringer. In the past, the sangh parivar has objected to movies about the plight of Hindu widows (Water), lesbianism (Fire), not to speak of movies on the Gujarat killings of 2002 like Parzania and Firaaq. If and when similar films come up for certification, will the CBFC's new members toe the sangh parivar's line or act independently?
Under the Cinematographic Act of 1952, no film may be publicly screened without the approval of the CBFC. The Board reviews thousands of films every year in all languages. Almost all of them are cleared, though not always with the kind of certification its producers would like. Often, the board asks for scenes to be cut or dialogues and song lyrics to be changed in the "public interest".
The recent controversy surrounding films like PK, MSG, Vishwaroopam and Aarakshan have underlined the politically fraught nature of the certification process. Goons affiliated to the RSS condemned PK for allegedly mocking Hinduism and wanted scenes cut or the film banned. In Tamil Nadu, a number of Islamist groups agitated against Vishwaroopam because they felt it portrayed Muslims as terrorists. It is settled law in India that the CBFC's word is final and that state governments cannot ban duly certified films on grounds of law and order. Indeed, they are obliged to ensure protection for the exhibitors and viewers of such films and act against those disturbing the peace. Yet, Tamil Nadu stopped the screening of Vishwaroopam and several state governments refused to intervene when thugs vandalized cinema halls showing PK.
While these protests have underlined the importance of objective certification for what is an industry worth thousands of crores of rupees, the CBFC itself is so hampered by a shortage of funds and an excess of politicization it is a miracle that it is able to function at all.
The Central government appoints the chairperson and the two-dozen odd members of the CBFC. It also appoints 'advisory panels' in different parts of the country that are responsible for the primary review of films in their regional language groups. Hindi films are seen and certified in Mumbai. If a film runs into trouble at that stage, its case is referred to the CBFC in Delhi, which then delegates one of its central members to participate in the review process. There is finally an appellate process involving the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), headed by a High Court judge.
Until now, ruling parties at the centre have been reasonably objective in choosing members of the CBFC. In the board that existed before the recent changes, two or three members (brought in by Manish Tiwari when he was Information & Broadcasting minister) had a direct link with the Congress and perhaps another two or three came in through political patronage. Most of the other members, including the chairperson, Leela Samson, had no direct or indirect political affiliation. But it was in the regional panels where the erstwhile UPA government, like its predecessors, played havoc, packing them with politically-networked individuals who had no qualification whatsoever to be deciding what was permissible or not. Worse, some, or perhaps many, of these members saw rent-seeking opportunities. Producers unhappy at the prospect of their films being certified 'Adults Only' are often willing to pay to get a coveted 'Universal' certificate. Others pay to avoid cuts in their films or to ensure a rival producer's project ends up on the cutting floor.
In 2013, an expert committee headed by Justice Mukul Mudgal, a former chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, reviewed the entire process of certification. One of its key recommendations was that the CBFC's board members must play a role in identifying suitable members for the regional panel, even if the power to select and appoint them remains with the central government.
While the committee's suggestion is excellent and timely, it ignores a fundamental question: What happens if the composition of the CBFC itself is politically compromised? If the CBFC consists largely or entirely of party hacks and activists, the short-list it prepares for the regional panels are likely to be just as bad.
Given the importance of movies in Indian culture, the CBFC chairperson and members should ideally be chosen by a non-partisan panel. This could consist of nominees from the ruling and opposition parties, eminent cultural personalities, academics and editors. The less politicians on the panel the better.
Tempting though it is to argue that the CBFC itself should be disbanded and that the requirement of certification be dropped or handed over to the film industry itself (as it is, say, in the United States), what this will mean in practice is the emergence of dozens of little censors. State governments wishing to appease political, religious or caste groups agitating against this film or that are today restrained by Supreme Court judgments which say a duly certified film cannot be stopped just because hyper-sensitive individuals claim to be offended. Without the imprimatur of an official certification process, the courts may not be so liberal when confronted by state governments making claims about law and order being imperiled.