How Can We Allow This?

...should not be the question. The CBFC needs to — has so far failed to — bring certification, not censorship, to the fore

Written by Shubhra Gupta | New Delhi | Updated: January 21, 2015 11:40 pm
Censor Board issue, CBFC, Central Board Of Film Certification, PK vs MSG, We need best-practice certification to provide clarity on what to expect from the film we are about to watch.

Actually, I am a rebel with several causes. But with one that is primary: Cinema.
Nifty phrases with an eye to catchy headlines and ear-shattering decibels of TV slanging in the past week have successfully, and sadly, deflected attention from the real issues — that of the state of Indian cinema today, of the difference between certification and censorship, and how the former is important while the latter is archaic, outmoded and irrelevant.

Much noise has been generated in the past week about a film featuring a godman, who is only an insaan. Just before this, a film about an alien who dissed godmen caused much agitation. In the din, questions about what gets “passed” by the “Censor Board” and what doesn’t were the loudest. An ill-informed clamour has ensued about the timing of the resignation of the chairperson of the Central Board Of Film Certification (CBFC) and some of its members (which includes this writer). All of which has succeeded in flattening the serious issues
of film policy and viewership practices, turning them into reductive, meaningless bytes: PK vs MSG, UPA vs NDA.

What emerges from the relentless shrillness is that as a society, we are the touchiest, most thin-skinned, defensive and therefore offensive when it comes to the “R” word. Violence, the most depraved kind, is fine. Sex? Oh, we’ve evolved. Look, ma, here are hands and lips and mouth-to-mouth, and the thrusting pelvis. But religion? Do not touch. Do not question. Don’t never, ever, laugh at it. If you do, you will be deemed a heretic. You will be accused of hurting sentiments. The other holy cow is politics. You cannot name a party or a politician. You can’t refer to a recent event. And a biopic necessarily has to be toothless and bloodless, or it runs the risk of being banned.

In my three-years-plus as a CBFC member, I learned many things. But the biggest lesson was that anything can cause offence and lead to things Being Shown In A Bad Light. Unbelievable in this day and age, but I kept hearing, How Can We Allow This? Taken together, they make for a lethal combination.

The continued use of these phrases is an overhang from British times, when the natives would
be prevented from viewing material considered too risible. That this is the 21st century of free, loaded-with-information, global Indians seems to have bypassed most of those who are convinced that  they have the right to “censor” films. Our board tried to bring certification, not censorship, to the fore. We tried to move away from creativity-killing conservatism to make the process more liberal, inclusive and  lateral. All of it has ended sadly in a place of endless, ignorant barbs and mudslinging.

Our board tried addressing several pernicious problems. The most pressing was the near-intractable problem of getting the right people to certify films. The panels that view films for certification are set up in the nine centres of the CBFC (mostly state capitals). They are drawn from a pool that is supposed to include people from “all walks of life”, but are mostly people who have been handed these “memberships” as political largesse and are, therefore, both entitled and malleable. This is the way government control has always been exerted at the first level. From here it extends in all directions.

In an attempt to “reform” the panels, we were asked to suggest names of people who would know their arts. Those lists, painstakingly complied, were ignored. We created training modules for existing panel members, as well as material for workshops. If the panels couldn’t
be changed, the members at least could be trained. Nothing came of this exercise. After initial enthusiasm, there were no funds nor backing for the activity.

When I was invited to accept a position on the board, I asked why they would want someone like me, who had been a vociferous and long-time critic. “Was the board sleeping?” is a statement I’ve used so often that I’ve lost count. I was assured that this was going to be a new-look board, that the fresh inductees would be those with domain knowledge with an overriding interest in the betterment of cinema. The job of the board, I was told, is to examine and debate and formulate overarching macro issues, and to strengthen and sharpen certification procedures. In an age of constant connectivity, where everything is downloadable, what else can it legitimately be?

We began with a great deal of optimism. I kept my deeply cynical journalistic self at a distance, because this was a great chance for someone like me, who had been writing on cinema for years, to see how it looked from the other side. I was curious to see the kinds of filters other people used when looking at films. And, it has been a terrific learning experience. I met filmmakers from all over the country, and got a window into myriad filmmaking practices. I wouldn’t want to have missed the experience for anything, despite the fractious
way things ended.

We attempted to get rid of the opacity surrounding the certification process by putting everything online, as well as the ambiguity on how the U/A certificate came across to viewers. Invariably, each week, parents would call me to ask if the film was “okay” to be shown to their children. If we were able to provide some clarity on the certificate (suitable for 12 plus, 15 plus, “contains some violent scenes/ nudity/ offensive language”, as in the US and some other countries), those questions would be answered right there. Nothing came of that either. This time, it was the film industry that resisted.

Then there is the matter of re-certification for TV: no channel can show A-rated films, so they need to reapply for a U or a U/A certificate for TV. Even if you cut out all the salacious details of, say, a film like The Dirty Picture, how can you turn a film that is adult in intent into one suitable for children?

In what could have been a landmark act, we tried revving up the conversation around a “watershed hour”, say maybe after 10pm or 11pm, to show adult films. No more infantilising the audience. More choice for adult viewers. Win-win, right? Wrong. There was furore amongst stakeholders. Neither filmmakers nor broadcasters were happy. Who will give us ads at that time? Children are up at 11pm. Bad idea. Forget it, we were told.

In Censorium, his 2014 book on Indian censorship practices, William Mazzarella says that “censorship figures the present as an exceptional in-between time, a time of disorder between defunct tradition and deferred development”. That time is now past. Censoring, from a high moral ground, what adults can and cannot watch is a slippery slope, and there is no end to it. We do need best-practice certification to provide clarity on what to expect from the film we are about to watch. And, yes, we do need education for those who will certify, as well as those who watch.

Picture ek nahin, bahut saari baaki hain, mere dost.

The writer is ‘The Indian Express’ film critic and a former member of the CBFC