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Simply put: How does the Censor Board work; why is it controversial?

There’s a row about CBFC and its chief Pahlaj Nihalani virtually every month. Nihalani says that he is only following guidelines.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul |
Updated: December 7, 2015 12:10:07 am
A still from Titli. A still from Titli. Titli’s makers have claimed they had to mute nearly all cuss words from the film.

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) seems to be constantly in the news. What’s been happening?

In August 2014, CBI arrested CBFC’s then CEO, Rakesh Kumar, for allegedly accepting a bribe to clear a Chhattisgarhi film under a provision for emergency certification. The arrest raised questions about the way CBFC functioned. This was followed, in January 2015, by the resignation of then chairperson Leela Samson amid controversy over clearance for Messenger of God featuring Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, and 13 board members, who protested that the government was treating the Board in a “cavalier and dismissive manner”. Samson was replaced by film producer Pahlaj Nihalani, who made the BJP campaign video Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi. Nine new members were appointed to the Board, almost all with BJP-RSS links.

Nihalani has since been focused on “cleaning up Indian cinema”. Soon after taking charge, he resurrected a 2003 list of “objectionable words/abusive words” in Hindi and English and sought to enforce their ban in films. He has said he is proud to be a BJP man, and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is his “action hero”. A fawning music video made by Nihalani about Modi was shown during the interval of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, which released last month.

What is the latest controversy about CBFC?

Several filmmakers have complained of arbitrary “suggested” cuts or objections by CBFC. NH10, produced by actor Anushka Sharma, had several expletives muted out despite its ‘A’ certification. Titli’s producer Dibakar Banerjee and director Kanu Behl have claimed they had to mute nearly all the cuss words from the film certified Adult. A kissing scene in the latest James Bond film, Spectre, has been shortened; CBFC suggested “a**holes” be replaced by “idiots”. The latest controversy is about Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses, which released on December 4. Despite voluntary cuts and muting of cuss words, the CBFC examining committee asked the makers to beep out a reference to a man as a woman’s “lunch”, and blur visuals of goddesses Lakshmi and Kali.

So, how does certification work? Can the Board demand whatever changes it likes in a film before allowing it to be shown?

Not exactly. The Board comprises up to 25 members and 60 advisory panel members from across India, all of whom are appointed by the Information & Broadcasting Ministry. The CEO is chiefly in charge of administrative functions, and regional officers are part of the examining committees that certify films.

Upon receiving an application for certification, the relevant regional officer appoints an Examining Committee. In case of short films, it consists of a member of the advisory panel and an examining officer, one of whom must be a woman. Otherwise, the committee consists of four members of the advisory panel and an examining officer. Two members of the committee must be women. The decision on certification — Unrestricted public exhibition (U), parental guidance for children below age 12 (U/A), Adult (A) or Viewing by specialised groups (S) — is made by the regional officer based on the (unanimous or majority) report of the Examining Committee. In case of a divided opinion, the case rests with the chairperson. Mostly, the list of “suggested changes” is shared with the applicant in case the certification is unacceptable to the latter.

If the applicant isn’t happy with the certification or the list of changes, he or she can apply to the Revising Committee, which has the chairperson and up to nine committee members, a mix of the Board and the Advisory. No Advisory panel member who has viewed the film can be included.

A similar process is followed at this stage too, with the final word resting with the chairperson.

In case of persisting dissatisfaction with the certification, the matter goes to an independent Appellate Tribunal, whose members are appointed by I&B for a term of three years. Any further dispute goes to court.

So where is the problem, then?

Certification is on the basis of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, which comprises a set of vague guidelines. For instance, it states that “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”. The vagueness leaves scope for whimsical decisions by the Examining Committee, which comprises Advisory panel members from all walks of life. So, a member who is personally uncomfortable with on-screen intimacy may suggest a cut even if the applicant is seeking an ‘A’ certificate. Also, with so much power vested in the chairperson, his or her opinion on ‘morality’ might take precedence over the artistic sensibility of the film’s makers.

What is the film industry complaining about?

Take the two most recent cases, Titli and Angry Indian Goddesses. Uncensored versions of both films premiered at prestigious international film festivals and won acclaim. However, for the India release, they went through the certification process, which, according to Dibakar Banerjee, was extremely arbitrary. “The Examining Committee asked us to meet the chairperson since they had reservations over the cuss words. Mr Pahlaj Nihalani suggested we apply to the Revising Committee. There, of the 11 scenes with cuss words, we were asked to reduce 50 per cent expletives in three scenes and the rest was cleared. That was the decision of the majority but we were still referred to the chairperson, who told us that the recommendation to halve the cuss words in those three scenes remains but all other expletives need to be muted,” says Banerjee. With their film at stake, Titli’s team decided to follow Nihalani’s suggestions.

The producer of Angry Indian Goddesses, Gaurav Dhingra, claims the CBFC uses several methods to armtwist filmmakers. Unhappy with the extensive list of changes, Dhingra had applied to the Revising Committee, “but the scheduled screening was cancelled twice”. “Since we were too close to the release date, we withdrew our application for a revision,” Dhingra says.

What does the CBFC have to say in its defence?

Nihalani says that he is only following guidelines. He says makers need to finish their films sooner and apply early, so in case they are dissatisfied, they would have time to apply for a revision or appeal.

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