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Yet another movie row frames the need for a rethink on film certification in India

By: Express News Service |
Updated: January 17, 2015 12:00:20 am

The Dera Sacha Sauda chief’s fans can breathe easy: after being threatened with an indefinite moratorium, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s movie, MSG: The Messenger of God, has got a reprieve. Thanks to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, which is under the I&B ministry, his followers will now be able to see the self-styled godman perform amazing feats of derring-do in bejewelled clothing in the appropriate 70 mm. Singh is no stranger to controversy. Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) Chief Leela Samson has quit over alleged “interference”, “corruption” and “coercion” from the government in the working of the CBFC in general and in this instance in particular, with the tribunal apparently clearing the movie in an atypically expedient fashion. The CBFC is said to have found the film unsuitable for release, purportedly because it promotes superstition.

But this imbroglio shines a light on the anachronistic character of the CBFC. Samson may be correct in accusing the board of corruption — after all, Rakesh Kumar, the CBFC’s CEO at the time, was arrested in August last year for seeking speed money to clear films, a sign of just how difficult it can be for a filmmaker to navigate the board’s labyrinthine conditions. However, the malaise runs deeper still. Despite the change in name to remove the word “censor” from its title, the CBFC, for all intents and purposes, is one. It imposes arbitrary and often ridiculous standards to censor movies, encouraging a competitive politics of hurt sentiment.

A certification board should do just that: classify films on the basis of a labelling taxonomy that specifies what viewing age a film is appropriate for, and offer consumer advice that would detail references to sex, violence and coarse language. If a viewer is uncomfortable with certain kinds of subject matter, she can skip to the next movie. This process should be outsourced to an industry body or autonomous entity which represents the interests of filmmakers and their audiences, not government.

Only last month, a brouhaha over PK, which riled certain Hindutva groups, saw Samson go to bat for the film. There was the threat that, despite being certified by the CBFC, the movie would be banned in deference to offended sentiments. A body whose authority is so easily undermined, and which is known to kowtow to politics, cannot easily defend or police the right to free expression.

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