After long drawn and protracted attrition ‘Padmaavat’ without the ‘I’ was finally released on January 25, 2018, a day before India’s 69th Republic day. On this day in 1950, India, of course, adopted its Constitution that declared it to be a Sovereign, Democratic Republic.
At the heart of that sacrament lies the golden triangle of Rights — Article 14 that provides Right to Equality, Article 19 that pledges Fundamental Freedoms, especially the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression and Article 21 that provides Right to Life and Liberty. Read together this sacred compact represents the essence of ‘We the People’, that constitute the great Indian Republic.
Out of this golden triangle of Rights it is Article 19 (1) (a), Freedom of Speech and Expression that is most repeatedly subject to assault and battery. In a country where there are more opinions than people, more egos than ergo and more prickliness than patience, manufactured outrage is the first emotion that manifests itself. Since creativity involves not treading the beaten path, books, films, paintings and other works of art become easy prey of hypocritical rage and the quest of self appointed protectors of morality for their two moments under the sun.
In the case of ‘Padmaavat’, despite the Supreme Court emphatically weighing in, the hooliganism, anarchy and downright lumpenism that were let loose on the streets especially in BJP-ruled states represented a completely new nadir. One can only wonder whether these “Senas” could have gone so far without the tacit support of the BJP Central and state governments who chose to run with the hare and hunt with the hound. Was there an agenda beyond opposing the release of ‘Padmaavat’ at play?
However this unfortunate and tragic soap opera in which even school children were not spared should once again focus attention on both Article 19 of the Constitution and the whole paradigm of how we certify (read censor) films for the purposes of screening.
Article 19 (1) (a) guarantees the freedom of speech and expression to all citizens. The right is however caveated by Article 19 (2) that allows the state to impose reasonable restrictions on the exercise of this right. The certification of films is governed by the Cinematographic Act of 1952 and the Cinematographic (Certification) Rules 1983 rules made under it. Since the scope of constraints under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution are almost infinite they have been engrafted virtually in-toto in Section 5 (B) of the Cinematographic Act.
This section entitled ‘Principles for Guidance in Certifying Films’ virtually gives the Censor Board unbridled powers to refuse certification, impose arbitrary cuts, grant certificates ranging from U (Universal viewing) to S (for Specialized presentation). All this and more is done almost on a daily basis in the name of protecting the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, morality, defamation, contempt of court or even the obtuse incitement of an offence.
The power to certify a film is exclusively vested in the Central government, under Article 246 (entry 60) in the Union list of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. However state governments routinely misuse their law and order powers and state laws promulgated under Entry 33 of the State list also in the Seventh Schedule to ban films that have been granted certification by the CBFC.
Under Rule 21 of the Film Certification Rules, a producer or his nominee applies for the certification of a Film. It has to be then vetted within 21 days. This rule is routinely violated for big banners and influential producers ostensibly in the name of stopping piracy. The film is then referred to an examining committee drawn from people on the Advisory Panel attached to every regional Centre.
The examining committee then recommends as to how a film should be certified. If the producer or the Chairperson of the CBFC is unsatisfied with the examining committee’s decision, it is then referred to a revising committee. If the producer is still not happy with the decision of the revising committee he /she can appeal to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) and then a writ lies to the High Court followed by a Special Leave Petition to the Supreme Court.
The fundamental point being that wide, arbitrary and almost draconian powers that are exercised by the CBFC, can drive even a conservative filmmaker around the bend. Considering that huge financial investments are in play and the interest meter is ticking, time is off the essence, which means the producer becomes a mere puppet in the hands of the Board. That is the reason why allegations of corruption, malfeasance are the staple of the grist mills. Moreover a command performance to deny certification at the behest of the Central government is the easiest one-person act to perform.
If a film maker is able to navigate his/her way through this byzantine maze, state governments can always stop a film from being screened, on the spurious premise of a law and order situation as happened in the case of ‘Vishwaroopam’ in Tamil Nadu, ‘Sada Haq’ in Punjab and myriad other films along the way.
My experience as a former Information and Broadcasting Minister, with the functioning or rather the malfunctioning of the CBFC convinced me that this institution should be abolished. I tried hard to find a trigger to demolish this architecture. The opportunity came when the government of Tamil Nadu banned the Kamal Haasan starrer ‘Vishwaroopam’. Oral instructions were issued to District Collectors to halt the advance booking of the movie, as it would ostensibly hurt the sentiments of a particular community.
Despite my repeated public entreaties that this move was wholly illegal the state government refused to budge. It was quite clear that there was a stand- off. While the state government was hell bent on using it’s law and order powers to curb and circumscribe artistic freedoms, the larger question to my mind was that if every state government started adopting this route, where would it leave the Cinematograph Act?
More importantly, would film-makers be compelled to run from state secretariat to state secretariat, hat in hand, to get their films exhibited after spending humungous sums of money to produce the movie and then obtaining all the requisite clearances as required by the law? The entire issue went far beyond just the ban of a particular movie.
On February 4, 2013, while the ‘Vishwaroopam’ controversy was raging I constituted a committee consisting of some of the most eminent and knowledgeable people of the subject at hand. The committee among others consisted of Mukul Mudgal, retired chief justice, High Court of Punjab and Haryana, Lalit Bhasin, chairperson, FCAT, Sharmila Tagore, former chairperson, CBFC, and Javed Akhtar, then an MP, with the mandate to review the functioning of CBFC.
The committee, after consultations with stakeholders, and after touring the length and breadth of the country submitted its report on October 9, 2013. Since the committee, in addition to people from the creative arts, had lawyers on it too, they even drew up a Model Cinematograph bill.
When the committee came to submit its report, the first question I asked them was have you recommended the scrapping of this whole silly censorship process masquerading as certification? The Chairperson Justice Mudgul responded with a smile saying we did not know that you wanted that. I responded by saying it would have been wholly inappropriate of me to impose my subjective desires over your objective consideration.
The point I have repeatedly made over the years is if television can be beamed into people’s bedrooms 24X7 regulated by only a Programme Code and an Advertising code, why have a censorship mechanism just for films? This belongs to another time and place in history. Unlike TV, that a person maybe involuntarily compelled to watch, in the case of a film you actually go to a theatre and buy a ticket to watch a movie. There is no coercion involved in the process.
The NDA/ BJP government chose to cold-shoulder the Mudgal Committee Report and appointed another committee under eminent filmmaker Shyam Benegal to reinvent the wheel. Given the reactionary ethos of this government, the committee was at best a tactic to divert flak the government was then receiving from the creative community over the spectre of intolerance that found expression in the ‘Award Wapsi’ movement. Its recommendations have since been gathering dust.
The reality is that India has a Censor Board that masquerades as a Certification Process. Till the time the Cinematographic Act is not repealed and state governments are not proscribed from banning films, books and other works of art by providing constitutional safeguards what happened to ‘Padmaavat’ will become more the rule than the exception.