India chronically suffers from censorship controversies with films being subject to the mercy of the CBFC. A new ruling seeks to change the system to certification from censorship.
Recently, the questions on censorship and ‘freedom of speech and expression’ have shaken the beliefs of the common man in the fundamental principle of India as a democracy. Varied instances in the past few months have resurrected this debate, with little effort to reform the underlying problem. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) may be credited once again, for reviving the evergreen issue of censorship versus creative freedom in India. CBFC, a statutory body under the ministry of information and broadcasting, established under the Cinematograph Act, 1952, to regulate the public exhibition of films, has been in the news for its arbitrary tendencies. The CBFC passed and certified the recent release, Mohenjo Daro, with no cuts to the so-called intimate scenes. This comes as a surprise after CBFC’s conservative and stubborn stand on films like Unindian and Udta Punjab in recent times. Moreover, issue-based cinema like Ka Bodyscapes was refused certification on grounds that the film ridiculed, insulted and humiliated Hinduism. So what do these changing stands denote? Is this a glimmer of hope for the imaginative mind or another case of a moody film certification board?
Inherent limitations of the certification process
Amidst the age-old debate between creative activists and conservatives, the basic conflicts in the certification process remain undetected. Under section 5B of the Cinematograph Act, the CBFC is mandated to examine works against the principles of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, morality, defamation, contempt of court and the likelihood of inciting offensive behaviour. Needless to say, these ambiguous criteria place unfettered discretion on authorities. The CBFC is established under the direct supervision of the central government, comprising of twelve members. The process tends to blur the lines between neutrality and personal bias when the members of the board are given excessive discretion. The central government’s explicit control over the appointment and functioning of the board may assert undue influence in encouraging the government’s ideology. Even the advisory or enquiry panels set up to assist, guide or check the board are under the command of the central government. This increases the possibility of government ideology being pushed through the widely popular medium of film, in addition to inhibiting individual creativity.
With such glaring fundamental constraints the government has recently endorsed the concept of certification rather than censorship. The government has announced a new law to replace the 64-year old Cinematograph Act to dilute the power of the CBFC. This demonstrates that the winds are changing. However, another legal mandate may not be an answer to this deep-rooted issue. Changing times motivate a shift in the intent of the policy behind film certification in India: an experimental approach of ‘voluntary rating system’.
How does the voluntary rating system work?
Presently, the process of voluntary rating for films and videos is followed in the US. Under the rating system established by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National Association of Theatre Owners in 1968, the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) is an independent group of parents that rates submitted works. Under CARA, members are required to be parents of children aged between 5-20 years. This ensures a rotation of the members otherwise based on a seven-year term. Here the president of the MPAA appoints the chairman of CARA with no further role or control over the rating process. Any filmmaker may submit his/her film for a rating, which is then viewed by CARA and voted for a specific category. All ratings are confirmed based on a two-thirds majority. The appellate body comprises of 14-18 representatives from the film industry and members of the Catholic and Methodist Christian churches who review the decision of CARA if appealed.
The MPAA rating system lacks legal enforceability and films may be exhibited in the US without a rating. Any American producer/distributor may bypass the rating system and approach the market for the distribution and screening of his work. These ratings are voluntary and entirely recommendation-based in nature with no legal basis.
Some benefits of this process are clear. The lack of any coercion assures the filmmaker that his/her creative ideas are not at the mercy of bureaucracy. If the government plays a negligible role then it considerably reduces any undue influence on the members judging the film and consequently the tendency to push an ideology also diminishes. All members of CARA view most movies submitted for a rating, unlike in India wherein the regional centres look into most films, with only some cases being escalated to the CBFC. This leads to more informed decision-making. Though this rating system is voluntary, most filmmakers apply for a formal rating. Since the process is voluntary and transparent, the audience prefers a film that is rated. The involvement of the film industry in the functioning of the rating system strengthens the belief in the authenticity of the system. With signatory members of the MPAA, representing the major studios and agreeing to submit all of their theatrical releases for rating, the voluntary rating system emerges as a trustworthy and reliable process endorsed by the industry. Usually only small, independent films, foreign films or direct-to-video films, and other films that are not expected to receive wide distribution, are released without a rating.
Is India ready for it?
As with all policy-based processes and norms, a voluntary rating is not bereft of short-comings. With the role of the government reduced and a distinct lack of a legal support, there are chances of abuse. Some unrated movies that may affect the minds of the young may be released and endorsed or rejected by the audience. Increased participation of the industry may result in lobbying for specific appointments on the ratings panel. However, in this age of technological advancement even though the CBFC may ban or enforce certain cuts in movies, the uncut versions of films are available online. Certain incidents have shown that such strict vigilance by the CBFC, at times, encourages the piracy industry. The uncut versions of such films are released in pirated prints for global viewing.
The aim is to not blindly ape the policy of the MPAA rating system but to utilise the principle to create a process in the Indian setting. Various modifications can be made to keep more checks and balances in a country like India where the standards of religious and cultural tolerances differ. For example the appointment of members on the voluntary rating panel could be a mix of people nominated by the government and the industry. In any case, the present court interventions prove to be too little too late to remedy the arbitrariness in each case. And so, India is in a dire need of a reliable system endorsed by the industry and the audience.
Undeniably, the shackles on creative freedom have considerably loosened over the decade. The freedom of speech and expression embodies the right of individuality. Any threat to such ‘individual thinking’ leads to an aggressive campaign against reasonable restrictions as well. Since creative freedom is not an unbridled right, the need of the hour is to review the motive and intent behind such norms. It is essential that the ministry of broadcasting and information works on a white paper laying down the detailed processes of such a voluntary rating system and its implementation. Mere reports of the Mudgal or Benegal Committee and subsequent legal amendments will not suffice for a policy change. In the current scenario, the Benegal Committee has recommended the replacement of the anti-smoking ads and tickers with one static message at the beginning of the film. No certification is required for films to be screened at the International Film Festival of India in Goa this year. Slowly the individual’s choice is becoming paramount against the sensibilities of the state. With such attempts being made, the best way to prevent creative anarchy is to streamline the choices, not battle them.
Akansha Dubey is a lawyer and works at the National Council of Applied Economic Research.