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Udta Punjab row: Why ‘Censor Board’ must stick only to certification

It is time now to ask that question, and to keep asking it till some clarity emerges: Is there any need for censorship in an age when everything is available on the Internet?

Written by Shubhra Gupta |
Updated: June 10, 2016 10:12:20 am
Censor board, Udta Punjab, Udta Punjab controversy, Udta Punjab censor issues, Censor board, shyam benegal committee, CBFC, Udta Punjab CBFC, Udta Punjab Censor board, India news The chief problem is that the CBFC, has not internalised the implications of the difference between ‘censorship’, which is an overhang of the British era, and ‘certification’.

While the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and the producers of Udta Punjab, a film based on the rampant drug use and abuse in the state, slug it out amidst much mud-slinging, all of which is gleefully finding its way into the media, the real debate appears to be getting lost all over again.

It is time now to ask that question, and to keep asking it till some clarity emerges: Is there any need for censorship in an age when everything is available on the Internet? Is there any need for a body which is appointed by the government to monitor the cinemas of India, a body which is increasingly getting caught up in needless politicking and the trading of ugly charges?

From the perspective of this writer who has spent a term as a board member, the existence of a body which interprets its mandate wisely and well is imperative, not a body which goes cut, cut, cut at the drop of a hat. Or, shall we say, the appearance of a visual. There is everything desirable about proper certification of films: nothing good comes out of censorship exercised from a position of we-know-best arrogance and couched in shrill voices which occupy a faux moral high ground. Or when cinema is made a political pawn.

This is how the certification procedure works: once the film is complete, a filmmaker approaches the local office of the CBFC in order to obtain a censor certificate, without which the film cannot be exhibited. In other words, the crucial document which lets the film fulfil its destiny, and be shown to the viewers it was intended for.

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There are nine offices of the CBFC — in Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Cuttack and Guwahati: the idea is to let all major filmmaking centres have easy access to CBFC offices, keeping proximity and language familiarity in mind. The Mumbai office is the busiest, dealing with Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi films. It is the hot seat for obvious reasons, because that’s where Bollywood films fetch up for certification.

As a first step, an examining committee (EC) views the film and comes up with the category it thinks the film is appropriate for: U, U/A, or A, meant to denote, respectively, universal, parental guidance, and restricted-to-adults viewing. If a filmmaker’s expectation and the panel’s views match, then all is well. A disagreement may lead the filmmaker to ask for a fresh look at the film. In such cases, a revising committee (RC) is set up. The members of this second panel cannot be the same. Additionally, on this second panel, the presence of one board member is mandatory.

The board, of about 22 to 25 members, is drawn from ‘experts’ — people who have domain knowledge, and can contribute to the growth of cinema and the arts — from all over the country. The board meets several times a year to examine and deliberate upon issues pertaining to the production and exhibition of cinema, of which certification forms an important part. It is meant to be advisory in nature. The board members are not expected to be involved in the day-to-day processes of certification, unless they wish to be.

The presence of a board member, which could also mean the chairperson, usually brings a more nuanced approach to the viewing at this second tier. There may be suggested cuts if the panel feels they are unsuitable for universal viewing, and once they are mutually agreed upon, usually the filmmaker goes away with the certification he or she desires.

When even that second level turns contentious, the filmmaker can take the film to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), a Delhi-based quasi-judicial body comprising about five people, headed by a retired senior judge. Usually, the filmmakers’ plea — mostly to do with the number of cuts — is heard by a ‘more liberal’ body (which has usually been the reputation of the FCAT) at this stage. And usually, the film is ‘passed’ with either no cuts, or minimal cuts.

The last recourse of the filmmaker, should the film run into trouble at the FCAT too, is the Supreme Court. But usually at the Tribunal stage things get resolved, more or less amicably.

Filmmakers who want their film intact along with the desired certification can face a long, uphill battle. Most often, with the date of release around the corner, and fearing incurring financial losses any delays may cause, filmmakers may get pressured into agreeing with the certification that is handed out.

The chief problem is that the CBFC, which is still bound by the archaic, outdated guidelines formulated in 1952, has not internalised the implications of the difference between ‘censorship’, which is an overhang of the British era, and ‘certification’, which is the need of the present times. The Censor Board, as it used to be called, and still is in popular parlance, has failed spectacularly to keep step with a new, resurgent India where viewers have instant, unfettered access to uncensored global content, which is watched, or not, on its own merits.

Well-reasoned, well-thought out certification simplifies the life of a viewer: at one glance it is clear which film is appropriate for which age-group. Extra caution or vigilance is valid only when the film can potentially impact children below 12: if you are over 18, and can be trusted to vote in a government, get married and have children, you can be trusted to watch what you want.

The mandate of the board (and all the panels and members associated with it) is to strengthen and sharpen certification procedures, so that viewers can make better, informed choices. Not to demand unconscionable cuts, on the basis of either a glaring lack of knowledge of the arts, or under pressure from any quarter. Or to deny certification to films “which show communities or individuals in Bad Light”, a favourite CBFC phrase.

Let us, the viewers, decide: we are the punters who line up to buy tickets. Let not a deluded few drum up motivated outrage on our behalf. We are capable of embracing or rejecting a film all by ourselves, thank you very much. And that is the kind of censorship filmmakers will have to accept — the right cut, minus ifs or buts.

The author is Film Critic of The Indian Express and a former member of the Central Board of Film Certification.

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