The two steps forward, three shuffles back of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) over the Punjabi film The Mastermind: Jinda Sukha is just the latest instance of the deepening chasm between ‘censorship’ and ‘certification’ in today’s India. The revoking of a duly certified film underlines the growing trend of ‘if there are people who don’t like it, and will make a noise about it, we won’t show it’.
The difference between certification and censorship is vast, and unbridgeable, and rightly so. Censorship is ‘to censor’, to arrogate unto an appointed body or an individual the power to decide what can be watched, and what cannot. Back when the British instituted censorship, they framed rules to restrict exhibition of such cinematic works as could potentially be considered subversive or ‘pro-freedom’.
After Independence, when The Cinematograph Act of 1952 came into being, ‘censorship’ came to mean much more. The guidelines of the Act, while accepting the constitutional right of freedom of speech, which extends to press and cinema, are a detailed list of what can be considered ‘reasonable restrictions’: any work that can be deemed against “the sovereignty and integrity of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.
Basically, that covers Everything. And the implementation of such ‘rules and guidelines’ by people who misuse or raise them as red flags without any understanding of the arts, rather than interpret them wisely, is what has led us to the situation where we can vote, marry, procreate and decide on many other crucial decisions that impact our lives, but not on what we can watch in our theatres.
Early in this writer’s tenure on the CBFC, a wizened officer had said, ‘If we try going strictly by the guidelines, no film will be passed’. But the corrosive extent of the ‘restrictions’, which to a long-time journalist and film critic were far from being reasonable, became evident only gradually.
It also became clear just how, all other things being equal, a bunch of individuals can find it easier to veer towards censorship not because they themselves necessarily favour it, but by a default decision which falls into the ‘let’s not offend anyone’ sphere. And that, given the imperatives — political, cultural, moral — that go with such a decision, and the ease with which we are all offended by everything, the mandate of the Board — certification, not censorship — is the first to be sacrificed.
If the recreation of the Jinda-Sukha tale, even in the most mainstream of manner, causes offence to a ‘section of society’, why, the easiest thing to do is to stop the film from releasing. If a Kaum De Heere, on the assassination of Indira Gandhi, will cause ‘communal tension’, ban it. If the Kamalahasan film Vishwaroopam causes ‘hurt to Muslim sentiments’, demand changes. 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.
Certification is a two-tiered process. Depending on the language it is made in, a film goes first to an examining committee or an advisory panel at a regional centre (there are nine in the country: Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Cuttack, Guwahati). This process — a viewing by the panel — leads to a decision on the certification. Most producers naturally want a U certificate, because that gives them unrestricted theatrical (and television access for subsequent screenings). If there is content unsuitable for children below 12, cuts and deletions are suggested, and depending on those, the certification can be either a U or a U/A. If the film is clearly adult-themed, and adult in content, an A certificate is handed out.
If a filmmaker is unhappy or dissatisfied at the certification at this stage, she or he can ask for a second viewing. A Revising Committee cannot have any of the members who were on the earlier committee; and it also has to have a Board member (or more) on it, mandatorily. It is only at this stage that a Board member gets involved with the certification process: there is nothing to prevent a Board member from being part of the initial viewing, but their presence becomes mandatory only at the revising stage.
Most revising committee screenings usually lead to a satisfactory conclusion. But if there is still contention, the filmmaker is free to take her work to the FCAT, or the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, which is a body set up under a retired justice of the High Court, based in New Delhi. Once the film is certified, it can, notionally, be shown anywhere in the country.
But equally clearly, ‘notional’ is the operative word, because at any step, the release and exhibition of the film can be stopped, both at the state level, and by the Central government. What is the point of going through a certification process if censorship hovers so close?
The question of censorship vs certification, in a vibrant democracy, and in an age where everything is a download away, needs to be addressed with a great deal more thought than it has been till now. Knee-jerk has only brought us to our knees.
(The writer, Indian Express’s film critic, is a former member of the CBFC) firstname.lastname@example.org