As Government Appoints Benegal Committee, an Old Report Lies Ignored

Film posters outside a cinema hall in Bangalore. Credit: Paul Keller on Flickr

Film posters outside a cinema hall in Bangalore. Credit: Paul Keller on Flickr

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s decision to form a three-member expert committee under the stewardship of Shyam Benegal to revamp the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has been welcomed by a section of the industry but has left many others quite mystified.

Given the somewhat strange decisions being taken by the present Board, the news of a committee is clearly an indication that the government is far from satisfied by the current chairman, Pahlaj Nihalani. The film industry has been aghast at Nihalani’s overreach, his style of functioning his growing list of don’ts for film makers.

But here’s the catch-there is already a report, written by another expert committee formed two years ago to revamp the same Board, which is gathering dust with the ministry. Government websites feature a proposed Cinematograph Bill and the 19-page report of the committee that had, among its members, former CBFC chairperson Sharmila Tagore and Leela Samson, who resigned as chairperson in March 2015.

The new committee chairperson Shyam Benegal told The Wire soon after his name was announced: “Society is a dynamic entity, not static as many assume it to be, and therefore cinema needs to be in tune with what is happening in the society.”

Some censorship required, says Benegal

“I have always believed in artistic freedom, in allowing a creative person to think freely without official intervention but at the same time it is also true that what you are creating is mass media. It becomes a part of mainstream discourse. What you produce has the power to influence the public. Therefore, some amount of censorship should be there,” he argues.

The old report, dated September 28, 2013, has a long list of recommendations, some of which are aimed at giving a fresh lease of life not just to the Act.

It also suggested systemic changes in the Board, such as injecting more transparency in to selection of Regional Officers and their assistants, bringing the CEO’s post under the Act and largely delinking the post of chairperson from politics. It also suggested a new form of classification of films-

1. unrestricted exhibition as U

2. for persons who have completed twelve years of age as 12+

3. for persons who have completed fifteen years of age as 15+

4. restricted to adults as A

5. restricted to members of any profession or any class of persons, having regard to the nature, content and theme of the film as S

“In the current system, most filmmakers want an UA certificate since that gradation covers the largest number of viewers. We recommended bringing in gradations even in UA as we felt a film sometimes can be viewed by a 14-year-old but may not by a 12-year-old,” Tagore told The Wire.

In this context, ask film industry veterans, where is the need for another committee? Did the government even look at the 2013 recommendations, it was asked, or has the new committee been formed just to divert media attention from periodic embarrassment caused by Nihalani to the Ministry?

Or does the NDA government want to have its own report rather than consider one submitted under the UPA regime?

Former CBFC chairperson Sharmila Tagore, who was a part of the old committee, told The Wire that it was quite a comprehensive excercise: “Public money was used to engage all the nine regional offices of the CBFC. Many meetings were held with various stakeholders such as associations of producers, directors, social organisations, media persons, etc. to come up with a comprehensive document. We also received written material from various sources.”

The 2013 committee had suggested the need to bring advertising material of a film, such as posters, within the Act. “Till now, the posters are printed before the certification is granted. So even if you give an A certificate to a film, its posters often don’t flash it, resulting in people taking their children to those films. What is the use of such a certificate then?” asks Tagore.

Nothing new in committees

Said Samson, “That it will be headed by Benegal is good news for us all as I am sure it is for the industry. But having said that, committees are neither a novel thing nor is it to appoint an eminent person to head it.”

What is required, she said is to take a decision to implement the decisions. In 2013 itself — the year Indian Cinema turned 100, the Government (then the UPA II) could have “taken the trouble of gifting an updated and amended Act to the industry and to the nation. The Mudgal Committee report was before it. The bitter truth is, the arts and culture, the expressions of our people and the freedom of those expressions — a fundamental right, is of no importance to Government,” Samson said.  

Adds Samson, “The real problem is, those who review and judge films are appointed by the Government which is completely unacceptable. The job should be handed over to the film industry.”

Justice Mudgal hopes the Benegal Committee looks at his report and the proposed Bill considering the effort was put into it. “Benegal may not yet know about the recommendations and the Bill. I hope the new committee at least discusses those recommendations and improve them if necessary. I have no ego problems here and I wish them good luck,” he says.

Benegal avoids getting specific about those recommendations but adds, “There are several earlier reports on revamping the CBFC but you also need to look at why there was the need to have a fresh committee for the job.” 

Like the Mudgal Committee, the Benegal committee has also been given two months time by the Ministry to submit its report. Tagore says, “We found two months period a short time to engage with all the stakeholders of cinema including viewers. It took us nearly a year.” Benegal though feels, “There are a lot of enthusiastic people from the industry waiting to give their suggestions, so two months should be enough.”

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