Pahlaj Nihalani, the current chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) deserves our collective thanks for exposing just how absurd, arbitrary and abused our film screening regulations are. After a string of decisions that imposed his own dogmatic view of decency, propriety and culture on an unsuspecting public, the CBFC's decision on Balaji Motion Pictures' Udta Punjab has shown everyone just how much the board constituted for film certification has operated as a vehicle for film censorship.
To be fair, Mr Nihalani is not the first CBFC chairman to impose his own sensibilities on movies made by other people: the curbing of our freedom of expression has a decades-long history. If anything, Mr Nihalani used bigger scissors, used them too many times, and often in the most ridiculous places and times. This, accompanied by the strong smell of cultural policing and outright partisanship, distinguishes the current board from previous ones. The difference, though, is only of scale.
What is clear is that the way India decides what should be screened in cinemas and in the privacy of our homes needs to change. What is unclear is whether the Modi government intends to undertake the reforms proposed by the Shyam Benegal Committee. A report submitted to Arun Jaitley, the Minister for Information & Broadcasting, on April 26, recommends that the "CBFC should only be a film certification body whose scope should be restricted to categorizing the suitability of the film to audience groups on the basis of age and maturity."
According to the Benegal report, CBFC can only refuse certification on two counts. First, when parts of the film are "against the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence". Second, when the film crosses the ceiling of the most stringent rating. It is unclear what the Ministry intends to do with the report, and we cannot dismiss the usual fear of it gathering dust in the cavernous cabinets of New Delhi's government buildings.
While the Benegal committee report is sensible, it is, despite some media reports, hardly revolutionary. It leaves in the hands of the government the essential and subjective element of determining such matters as decency, morality, defamation, friendly relations with foreign states and sovereignty and integrity of India. The history of the CBFC, not least the recent controversies it has triggered, are ample evidence that the government does a shoddy job of it, both from an aesthetic and from a political point of view. We need no more proof that government-appointed individuals, whether from the film industry or otherwise, are terrible at the job.
If you think about it, there is no real need for the government to appoint its favourite censors to determine what people should see. Even without changing the principles for guidance in certifying films [Section 5(B)1 of the Cinematograph Act of 1952, that I quote above] it is possible to allow a competitive marketplace for the certification of films.
The Modi government must liberalise film certification, allow private Certifying Authorities and use the CBFC to regulate them. The CBFC's mandate and function then changes from being a censor board to being a watchdog of freedom of expression. Instead of cutting scenes from films, it should be made to regulate private Certifying Authorities, who must operate according to the rules it frames. A film-maker should be free to choose any from a number of CBFC-licensed Certifying Authorities to get their film certified. The CBFC can license any number of private companies that intend to get into the certification business, setting standards and ensuring compliance. It could, for instance, require that the certification committee of every Certifying Authority have representation from the industry, academia, civil society and linguistic/ethnic minorities.
Such a move will take the business of determining what is appropriate for general viewing away from a political appointee to a private player motivated by profit, but governed by a regulatory framework. This might appear a cosmetic move, but people behave differently when they wear professional hats as against when they wear political hats. A competitive market in certification will ensure that nobody can get away with higher prices, arbitrary cuts or partisan behaviour.
The idea of multiple, private Certifying Authorities is not pure fantasy. We already have them in India for digital signatures. Under the Information Technology (IT) Act 2000, the Controller of Certifying Authorities, a government body, licenses and regulates a number of private Certifying Authorities. We can very easily adopt a similar system for certifying films.
Had we had multiple certifying agencies, Udta Punjab would hardly have been controversial. Because of competition, it would have been very unlikely that any certifying authority would have acted in a partisan or arbitrary manner. If the producers were unhappy with the decision of one certifying authority, they could approach another, or take the appeal to a tribunal. In any event, the controversy would not have been a political one.
Indeed, the very fact that you can exert political pressure to prevent the screening of something you find objectionable has opened the floodgates of competitive intolerance. Getting a film censored is almost always an attempt to demonstrate political power, and anything can be mustered to claim hurt sentiments. To rescue our creative industries from the clutches of competitive intolerance, the aesthetic decisions must be depoliticised and professionalised.
(Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, a think tank and school of public policy. These are his personal views.)
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