The Central Board of Film Certification has been a newsmaker of unnaturally high frequency under the self-proclaimed ‘Modi Chamcha’ Pahlaj Nihalani as the Board chief. However, its demand for a NOC (No Objection Certificate) from the featured public figures (Arvind Kejriwal, Narendra Modi and Sheila Dikshit) to certify a documentary is unprecedented. An Insignificant Man, directed by Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla, follows Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party in the two year window from 2012-2014 when it was gathering support from the grassroots, rising as a political force, and subsequently transforming into a de facto political party. The wider debate this whimsical demand of censor board unleashes is about one of wanton censorship and the contradiction of its unbridled existence in a democracy where adults are expected to freely vote their government and simultaneously treated as too juvenile to make their own viewing choices.
“As people distant from politics, the nuts and bolts scenes about politics — how elections happen, how crowds are mobilised, how campaigning is done — had been interesting for us”, says Khushboo Ranka who, as a filmmaker and a citizen, finds the Censor Board’s demands counterproductive to any meaningful engagement with politics. The footage filmed of Kejriwal and other politicians by the film crew is no different from what television viewers come across 24×7 on news channels. “It would have been understandable if the Censor Board had concerns about the accuracy and veracity of the film or if they had concerns about showing a matter that is sub judice. Instead, they have asked to beep out the names of Congress and BJP in five places and get NOCs from all these personalities”, she says, sounding spent.
It is clear to Ranka and Shukla that there is no way for them to get these NOCs and that the absurd demand has no legal basis, a fact that veteran filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan and Amol Palekar have assured them of. “The CBFC has no jurisdiction over whoever is being spoken about in the film — those individuals are always free to challenge the film in court”, says Vinay Shukla.
The directorial duo is currently mulling over what steps to take to challenge CBFC’s denial of certification, possibly through the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), the tribunal that hears the appeals of applicants aggrieved by a decision of the CBFC, or the High Court. But getting an FCAT hearing date normally takes 45-90 days and independent filmmakers largely agree that High Court hearing timelines are even more nebulous and delayed, especially when applicants are not influential film industry players. The loss of time is a matter of concern.
Lengthy legal battles to justice
“If you go to the court, then you will get justice. But in the process of it you will spend so much money and so much time”, says Shukla. Like money, time lag is a real cause of concern, especially if it is a documentary. The Censor Board’s refusal to certify the film is tantamount to a ban, as it concerns public screening, buying, selling and renting of the film in India. The remedial legal course to have a ban overturned, if the matter ends up at the high court, can take a few stressful and expensive years. Waging these battles not only requires money, which most independent filmmakers are in tight supply of, but it also disrupts the timely exhibition of the film which particularly affects documentaries whose topic relevance dwindles if dust has already settled on the subject of its content in the lag time.
“Independent films seem to bother the censor board much more for some reason because they tend to put forward more alternative perspectives. It is much easier for a studio backed film like Udta Punjab to go to court because of the sheer costs involved”, says Alankrita Shrivastava, director of Lipstick Under My Burkha which was also controversially refused certification by the Censor Board earlier this year for being ‘a lady oriented film’.
Political films banned in recent past
However powerful or insightful at the time of its making, after a few years of delay, many documentaries run the risk of being of no consequence or redundant. This is particularly true of the films that try to engage with contemporary politics. Another politics based documentary that was denied a CBFC certificate was a 2015 film directed by Kamal Swaroop called Dance of Democracy: Battle for Banaras. The documentary recorded the competitive political campaigning by Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and various other candidates in their historic fight for the Varanasi political constituency prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The movie as a whole was deemed objectionable by the censor board who refused to pass it with or without cuts on the grounds that it was full of “hate and inflammatory speeches given by all the leaders of the political parties” and “tries to divide people on caste and communal lines”. Interestingly, these ‘hate-filled’ speeches were made in the public domain by the various politicians in Varanasi and also telecast on television at the time.
In spite of the director’s insistence that Battle for Banaras merely held up a mirror to the events that took place publicly, and was devoid of any commentary or voiceover from the filmmakers themselves, the film was effectively rejected by both the CBFC and FCAT. The FCAT upheld the CBFC’s stand stating that: “The release of the film may cause not only communal disharmony but also disharmony among the members of different castes and communities”. Somehow hate-mongering rhetoric by politicians is deemed permissible for all to hear during the election campaign and it is alright to show it uncensored on television too. But to show these speeches together in juxtaposition to make a point obvious and to reflect upon it as an election phenomenon is deemed unsuitable for the masses. Swaroop admitted in an interview at the time with PressTV that when Battle for Banaras was viewed by the CBFC in 2015 with Modi government at the center, it was perceived as anti-Modi and pro-Kejriwal. He also pointed out a common tendency, that CBFC often is speculative in their decisions that somebody will say later that ‘why did you pass this film’.
Banning of films with “political content” is not sanctioned per se in the Cinematograph Act, 1952 that bequeaths various powers to the CBFC or by any judicial decisions about free speech and certification. Yet, late Shubradeep Chakravorty’s documentary En Dino Muzaffarnagar (2014) about the gristly aftermath of the 2013 riots was denied certification by the CBFC, which quoted that the Ministry of Home Affairs had found the film was “highly provocative and incites communal disharmony.’ Like Battle for Banaras, this film’s fight is also on going in High Court.
Censor Board as a political gatekeeper
A default pattern in certification refusals falls in the domain of ‘let’s not offend anyone’ — including in case of An Insignificant Man where Nihalani’s draconian logic suggests that simply showing footage of a public figure is to risk defaming them and must not be allowed without clearances from politicians themselves. “The more we go into the nitty-gritties of the technicalities of CBFC decisions, the more we realise it is a futile exercise — a strawman’s argument — to divert attention from the main issue and the main problem, which is that censor board is not serving the purpose of fact check or ensuring moral safeguards as they claim”, says Ranka and added, “They are acting as gatekeepers of political ideologies and figures, which is not their job.”
Structurally, CBFC is directly regulated by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. While it is supposed to act independently of other government bodies, in effect that is usually not true.
Silencing and whitewashing occur over and over when the Board thinks it can deny certification or ordain cuts to what it perceives as objectionable material. Speaking of documentaries, filmmaker Rakesh Sharma, whose documentary Final Solution on Gujarat riots and Modi government’s role in it was initially denied certification by the CBFC in 2003, says, “The political motivation is to bury the film or bury it in litigation for the next 2-3 years. During the litigation process, you are not allowed to freely screen the film. By the time the case is sorted out, the films lose their relevance, their timeliness or the context or some other developments have happened which lends the discourse which you went in for redundant — partially or completely.”
Whitewashing attempts are visible in director Shonali Bose’s experience in acquiring certification for her critically acclaimed narrative film, Amu, in 2005 which engaged with the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. Bose shared, in an interview with David Walsh, the CBFC rationale of giving Amu an “A” certification in spite of no depiction of sex or explicit violence in the film. It was, “Why should young people know a history that is better buried and forgotten?” In spite of slapping an adult certification on Amu, CBFC further demanded cuts in significant scenes from the film including one in which a character indicts the complicity of the state and the police in the massacre.
Censorship of this form has always been there in the Indian state, and is not practised only by the censor board, as apparent in the above example of En Dino Muzaffarnagar. Punjabi films Kaum de Heere (2014) and The Mastermind Jinda Sukha (2015), respectively based on the lives of the assassins of Indira Gandhi and General Arun Shridhar Vaidya — man who planned Operation Blue Star — had originally been cleared by the CBFC and then rescinded upon memos from ministries.
The Ministry of Home Affairs’s fulmination over Kaum de Heere had been justified with the allegation that the film showed the assassins of Mrs. Gandhi in a “sympathetic light”. Film scholar Ashvin Devasundaram writes that in the wake of the ban, director Ravinder Ravi posed an interesting rhetorical question as to why a film about Indira Gandhi’s assassination was off limits when around the world films about assassination of political figures is de rigueur.
Writing in the Indian Express, after Jinda Sukha was effectively banned in India, Shubhra Gupta, film critic and erstwhile member of CBFC, summed up the censorship scenario, “It matters not which government is in power: any film that is seen to be challenging the status quo, or brings up disquieting facts even in fiction, invites an outright ban, or mutilation before a certificate is granted.”
A repressive British legacy
“A tendency has been interwoven into the fabric of the Indian state from the start that it is generally intolerant to any critical voices”, explains Sharma. “This combined with special treatment given to cinema which the state has laid out in various forms — the Cinematograph Act and so on — ensures that they keep a stranglehold on it, and the judiciary has upheld it in landmark cases in 1969 and 1973 by according a special status to cinema”, he adds.
“We now have to be more broad based in the way we look at cinema now. There is too much credit given to cinema for being a mass movement vehicle — they can be catalysts but no one film in itself can change the world. There is too much unfounded fear of movies by the government and by the CBFC”, says filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan whose first movie Gulaabi Aaina featuring a transgender protagonist had been repeatedly rejected by the Censor Board in 2003. ”
From the beginning, censorship — ostensibly justified more in the name of morality — possessed a political dimension. Historically, from the time of the British when cinema technologies were first introduced in India, it was treated by the colonial government as possessing the potential to cause social and political upheaval, especially among the poor and illiterate, if it is not strictly regulated. The first of Indian films to be banned were through the British colonial government apparatus, due to their subversive references to the ongoing anti-colonial resistance. The elaborate censorship system of what later became the Cinematograph Act of 1952 was originally invented by the British (Indian Cinematograph Act, 1918) and picked up almost as such by their Indian successors post-independence. The Act, along with Cinematography rules of 1958, vested immense powers in the CBFC, which has the authority to ban films or refuse them certification unless specific alterations and cuts are made.
“Even if you could argue in the 1960s and 70s that ‘gullible minds’ can be swayed by cinema and that Indian masses are gullible — in the nearly 50 years since those court rulings which justified censorship, the visual literacy landscape of the country has changed dramatically“, says Rakesh Sharma who feels that the old legal reasoning behind the practice of censorship is redundant in today’s world. “If there was lack of an ability to discern in the past — that is not the case anymore after 20 years of satellite TV, 24×7 news channels and advertising, online videos and WhatsApp“, he adds.
There is a strong and consistent feeling among filmmakers that the Cinematograph Act goes against freedom of expression by censoring cinema disproportionately and unfairly and is not in keeping with the modern sensibilities and technological developments. Among other things, the Cinematography Act states, “a film shall not be certified if any part of it is against the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite commission of any offence”, which leaves a lot of room for whimsical decisions by a body that is comprised of advisory members from all walks of life. “The CBFC really needs to implement the Shyam Benegal committee recommendations which state that instead of censoring there should be certification”, says Rangayan.
“We just need a certification system — we go show our films and they give us an agewise certificate and that’s it. Why is there a system where people feel that they can cut and delete at will?”, questions Shrivastava, who is also feels the government should implement the Shyam Benegal Committee recommendations without any further delay. “If our ambition is to be seen as a progressive and modern society — the basis of that is more freedom and less restrictions”, says Ranka.