Highlights

  • A look at the history of censorship in India
  • How does the CBFC function?
  • Is the censor board a relevant body in India?

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Is the censor board relevant in a digital world? | The Issue

With the ambit of content opening owing to global streaming platforms, and access to international content becoming easier - how relevant are the guidelines of CBFC and do they make sense in a digital world?

It’s an iconic scene from the cult classic 'Sholay'– Thakur is stopped from pummelling Gabbar to death so law can take its course. But did you know, that’s not how one of the most popular Bollywood films was to end? Gabbar was supposed to be killed but an Emergency-era censor board developed cold feet at the thought of a former police officer taking law into his own hands, and the Ramesh Sippy movie ended on a different note.

Much like other laws in our country, the censor board too has a colonial inheritance. Under the British rule, in 1920 censor boards were set up in erstwhile Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Rangoon. The boards were set up to judge the appropriateness of films and laid out 43 objectionable subjects. These included scenes that made light of the British Empire, gruesome murders and strangulation scenes, unnecessary exhibition of feminine underclothing etc. At the time, the main preoccupation of the censor boards was content bolstered anti-British, nationalist sentiments.

Also watch - 'Will lose its charm': Manoj Bajpayee against censoring OTT content

The ouster of the British from India led to significant changes in the censorship landscape. After decades of going back and forth on it – certification of films was brought under one governing body: the Central Board of Film Certification. This was also the decade that saw the disappearance of the kiss from Indian cinema— not because of change in censor rules, but because of a societal shift towards moral caution and “Indian" values.

The 1952 Cinematograph Act sets out the structure of censorship as it stands today: the chairperson at the top, then the board members, then the advisory panels. Everyone, from the chairperson down to the advisory panel members, is a government appointee. And governments have for decades been accused of using this body to their own benefit.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing stories in this regard would be that of Sanjay Gandhi and indie film Kissa Kursi Ka. The film was a political satire on the government of Indira Gandhi, made at the height of the Emergency. Not only was the film banned from release, Sanjay Gandhi and his aides burnt every single copy of the film. When the Shah commission was investigating cases of atrocities during the Emergency, Gandhi was jailed for a month, for this crime. Of everything Gandhi was accused of – it’s very interesting to note that this was the crime that sent him behind bars.

Also - 15 Indian OTT players choose self-regulation to avoid censorship

Critics of the censor board have said time and time again that the main problem with the body is the vague wording of the guidelines that give the board unrestrained powers. Some of the guidelines include human sensibilities are not offended by vulgarity, obscenity or depravity, the security of the State is not jeopardized, or endangered, public order is not endangered. The board in its objective also says that films must remain responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society. But in a society as pluralistic as ours, where social change takes place at the speed of light owing to digital media and faster modes of communication – it does become difficult to pinpoint exactly what the ‘values and standards of society’ are.

It cannot be denied that films in India make big bucks – the longer the cues for tickets, the happier film producers will be when cashing in their cheques. The CBFC in such a situation becomes important from a commercial aspect – and therefore even filmmakers and the industry should ideally have an appellate body that they can air their grievances against. And India did have this body – the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal. However, claiming that the tribunal was not functioning well, the Centre in April 2021 abolished the FCAT: much to the disappointment of many filmmakers.

Also watch - Amitabh Bachchan talks about freedom of speech and moral policing

India makes close to 1600 films every year, and apart from the CBFC makers also have to content with mob censoring. Physical protests have been to some degree replaced by calls for boycott on social media and taking stock of public sentiment is becoming tougher with every passing day. With the ambit of content opening owing to global streaming platforms, and access to international content becoming easier – Indians are slowly becoming more aware and in control of what they can watch.

With polarised viewpoints dominating mainstream narratives – how relevant are the guidelines of CBFC and do they make sense in a digital world? This is a question that requires some thought from all stakeholders involved.

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