On Tuesday evening, a government-issued press release announced that a committee headed by veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal had submitted its report recommending a number of amendments to the Cinematograph Act, 1952. This set of reforms, long overdue, is expected to lay down a "holistic framework", as the release says, for the certification of films.
As most moviegoers know, movies aren't certified in this country as much as they are censored, leading to the Central Board of Film Certification being ubiquitously referred to as the Censor Board. Since the CBFC's inception in 1952, scenes depicting sex, nudity, and profanity have often been axed either partially or entirely from films, while those that portray casual misogyny, bloody violence, and blatant regressiveness have been overlooked. Since January 2015, after filmmaker Pahlaj Nihalani took over as chairman, the board has been in the news with increasing and alarming regularity for its decisions to ask for sometimes ridiculous audio and visual cuts in films in order to make them adhere to a perceived 'Indian' standard of morality.
However, as we wrote in late November, the board's problems run much deeper than those caused by Nihalani's overzealousness in following the rule-book (as well as his famous allegiance to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party's conservative outlook). The rot in the CBFC is systemic, rife with controversial appointments to important posts, corruption, an outdated act that leaves too much to interpretation, and a propensity to over-err on the side of political correctness. On the guillotine, often, are the visions and hard work of filmmakers as well as artistic sensibilities.
One of the biggest hurdles in the certification process is its first stage: where the film is screened for a team called the Examining Committee. Many are severely underexposed to cinema and lack the artistic sensitivity to evaluate a potentially provocative scene or line of dialogue as per context.
It would, perhaps, not be entirely inaccurate to say that the CBFC's stringent, scissor-happy attitude has been, in its own small way, indirectly responsible for the general mediocrity in Indian commercial cinema, restricting what filmmakers can and cannot depict on screen and thereby curbing artistic freedom and fostering an environment where broad, accessible, majoritarian content is passed off as 'entertainment'.
Much is expected, therefore, from the Shyam Benegal Committee's report to bring about reform in the CBFC and improve the experiences of moviegoers as well as filmmakers in this country. Aside from Benegal, regarded as one of the finest Indian filmmakers around, the committee includes: veteran actor Kamal Hassan, filmmaker Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra, ad-man Piyush Pandey, filmmaker Goutam Ghose, film journalist Bhawana Somaaya, the National Film Development Corporation's managing director Nina Lath Gupta; and the Films Division's Joint Secretary K Sanjay Murthy, who also acted as Member-Convenor.
Here is our humble attempt at decoding the suggestions made by the report and what it means for censorship in India from the average moviegoer's point-of-view, as per what was highlighted in the press release:
1. An emphasis on certification over censorship (or so it claims)
CBFC should only be a film certification body whose scope should be restricted to categorizing the suitability of the film to audience groups on the basis of age and maturity except in the following instances to refuse certification –
• When a film contains anything that contravenes the provisions of Section 5B (1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952.
• When content in a film crosses the ceiling laid down in the highest category of certification.
In our November article, screenwriter and former CBFC member Anjum Rajabali had spoken about an "attitudinal subtext" present in the Cinematograph Act that attempts to "curb freedom of expression". This suggestion, at first glance, seems like a step to curb that. However, it still possesses one major drawback i.e. the adherence to the provisions of Section 5B (1), which states:
"A film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, the film or any part of it is against the interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence."
However, with the wording of this clause remaining unchanged, it appears that what constitutes as being against the interests of "sovereignty and integrity of India", "public order", "decency" or "morality" are still quite vague and open to interpretation. So, if decision-makers believe that depiction of, say, sex is immoral, the CBFC still has the right to demand cuts. If a film contains the line "I don't like India; Pakistan is a better country", that could be interpreted as an 'anti-national' statement that goes against this clause, giving the CBFC the power to ban it.
2. More categories of certification, more leeway
Regarding the categorisation of films, the committee recommends that it should be more specific and apart from U category, the UA Category can be broken up into further sub-categories — UA12+ & UA15+. The A category should also be sub-divided into A and AC (Adult with Caution) categories.
If implemented properly, this could be a boon for filmmakers as well as audiences. At present, there is a huge, arbitrary gulf between what is considered acceptable for a 'U/A' certificate and the same for an 'A' rating. Additional ratings lying in between the two will provide filmmakers with more options to acquire certification without necessarily having to compromise on content. The introduction of two 'adult' categories is especially interesting — it mirrors the ratings system used in the the United States, which uses the symbols 'R' (Restricted; children under 17 require accompanying parent or guardian) and 'NC-17' (Adults only; no children under 17 allowed at all).
3. Curbing potential 'reigns of terror'
The committee has also made certain recommendations regarding the functioning of the board and has stated that the Board, including Chairman, should only play the role of a guiding mechanism for the CBFC, and not be involved in the day-to-day affairs of certification of films.
Several members of the current CBFC — including Nandini Sardesai, Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi, and Ashoke Pandit — have spoken out against Nihalani's over-enthusiasm towards his work, commenting wryly that he spends more hours in office than any other chairman in the board's history. They have also alleged, in phone conversations with this writer, that Nihalani often ensures that he is physically present at screenings of 'problematic' films, in order to be able to guide the result to suit his personal agenda. A recommendation like this, if carried out and enforced, will help curb this sort of 'tyranny' and ensure that all films are certified in a fair manner.
4. The government will have no (direct) hand in appointing Examining Committee members, but will this work?
Regarding the Regional Advisory Panel the committee has laid down the criteria for appointment. All nine regions will have advisory panels comprising persons who are acquainted with the languages being certified by that regional office.
• Members from all walks of life, recommended by the National Film Development Corporation to the Central Government – 25%
• Members of the general public recommended by the FFSI (Federation of Film Societies of India) - 25%
• Members recommended by the National Council for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and National Commission of Women (NCW)- 25%
• Representatives of the local film industry, as recommended by FFI (Film Federation of India) – 25%
• Women to have 50% representation on each Panel.
One of the biggest hurdles in the certification process is its first stage: where the film is screened for a team called the Examining Committee. These people, say insiders this writer has spoken to, are often party workers who have been given a CBFC appointment as reward for political favours. Many are severely underexposed to cinema and lack the artistic sensitivity to evaluate a potentially provocative scene or line of dialogue as per context, as we noted in our previous report. Over the years, this attitude has persisted thanks to the existing provision that allowed the Board's members — usually comprising filmmakers and eminent journalists — to select two-thirds of the 250-odd members that constitute the Regional Advisory Panel; in practice, however, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is said to routinely appropriate these appointments, allege former board members we spoke to.
Not anymore. According to this suggestion, the pool of Advisory Panel members, could soon be appointed by reputed bodies that work specifically to foster quality in Indian cinema, led by experienced individuals who are likely to be far more discerning in their appointments. Meanwhile, the appointments made by the likes of NCW as well as the provision to ensure "50% representation of women on each Panel" could likely go a long way in curbing the in-your-face misogyny seen in a number of commercial Indian films.
However, while this looks like a step in the right direction on the face of it, it still begs a number of questions. Why, for instance, does it not specifically involve industry bodies such as the All India Film Employees Confederation, the Indian Film and Television Directors' Association or the Film Writers Association? What are the criteria that will be used to appoint members and what guidelines will be followed to ensure that the government doesn't interfere in their decision-making processes? After all, these are all government-run bodies.
5. The board will, once again, have the power of re-certifying films for TV
Recertification of a film for purposes of telecast on television or for any other purpose should be permitted.
The recent fracas over a badly butchered version of Neeraj Ghaywan's award-winning Hindi feature Masaan playing on Star Network's online streaming platform Hotstar brought into focus, again, the conflict that occurs when adult films have to be re-certified as 'U/A' for their satellite rights to be sold. An impasse between broadcasters, producers, and the CBFC took place last year when Nihalani reinterpreted a clause in the Cinematograph Act and refused to re-certify films for TV. It ended when he put the onus on producers to re-cut their own films for a U/A rating, which could technically allow filmmakers to make compromises as per their own judgement.
This suggestion, however, puts back the onus on the CBFC which, quite frankly, doesn't sound like the best of ideas from the viewer's point of view. It does, however, benefit producers who want to make money off satellite rights without any regard to how the film is re-edited — since they can always blame the censors for it.
6. The CBFC-certified version of a film will not be valid for posterity
"In order to preserve Indian Cinema, the committee recommends that every applicant be asked to deposit the Director’s Cut in the NFAI [National Film Archive of India] for preservation of Indian Cinema, instead of the certified version, in order to truly reflect the cinematic history of Indian cinema."
This is a significant reform that, if implemented, would achieve the rare feat of actually respecting a filmmaker's original vision. However, one could argue that it's also somewhat pointless, since the general viewer will probably not be able to watch that version. This is because, according to current laws, all public exhibitions — theatrical, TV, DVD — require a censor certificate. Furthermore, according to a recent ruling in Punjab & Haryana High Court, deleted portions of a film that has already been granted a CBFC certificate cannot be released on the Internet.
7. Perhaps fewer films will be banned arbitrarily?
In the event that complaints are received by the Central Government, the same shall be referred to the CBFC. The Chairperson may, if he considers it necessary to do so, refer the film to a Revising Committee for examination once again, on account of alleged violation of Section 5B(1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952.
The wording implies that an additional layer of protection will be given to films that become the target of calls for bans or censorship, perhaps even after their release. This is because the Revising Committee's members generally tend to be more cinema-literate and liberal in their outlooks, as compared to the Examining Committee. However, this neglects to mention if this provision will apply to films that receive stay orders from courts or merely direct complaints addressed to the Central Government (presumably the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting).
The committee is yet to reach a final decision on "issues relating to clearances to be obtained from the Animal Welfare Board under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act" and those related to "depiction of smoking in films wherein films are required to show a disclaimer in every scene that involves smoking". It is expected to submit its views on these by June 20.
TL;DR? Here's the bottom line
The Shyam Benegal Committee's report, although incomplete, contains several suggestions that are long overdue and definitely represent a step in the right direction. While the introduction of new certification categories is good news, the existence of an unchanged and vague Section 5B (1) continues to leave much more room for interpretation than desired. It is certainly cause for cheer that, if these changes are implemented, the government will — at least on paper — have lesser control over the CBFC's appointments and functioning than ever. It does remain to be seen, however, if these changes will stick.
What's still disconcerting, however, is a lack of recommendations that introduce more transparency in the film certification process and programmes that will help sensitise and train Advisory Panel members to appreciate the nuances of cinema. As an art form, film is a medium that is also supposed to disturb, to provoke, and to question the status quo. Unfortunately, poorly-worded clauses like 5B (1) seem to imply that ideas of the country's integrity, decency, and morality are up to the discretion of each individual's own sensibilities.
Contact HuffPost India
Also see on HuffPost: