“New laws on censorship can change face of Indian cinema forever,” filmmakers on Cinematograph Bill

Photo: Irfan Hadi K

The Union government on 18 June sought public comments on its draft Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021 which grants the government with revisionary powers to review a film after it has been given a certificate by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), among other things. It also proposed amendments to penalise piracy and introduce age-based certification. The draft amendment bill is open for public comments till July 2. Yet, most of the amendments proposed in the bill have received widespread criticism from the film fraternity.

The CBFC grants certification to films if they meet all of the criteria formulated under Section 5A of the Cinematograph Act. As per Section 5B of the Act, the CBFC can reject a film if it is against “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, 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.” This provision is taken from Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution, which sets the permissible restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression of citizens.

The power to revoke or re-examine a film after its approval by the CBFC has already been struck down by the Supreme Court in its judgment in the case of Union of India vs. K.M. Shankarappa, (2001) 1 SCC 582. But, through proposing a new draft of amendment bill, the Union government is trying to overwrite this decision of the court which will give them excessive powers on decision making regarding the certification of films.

“With the proposed amendment bill, the government can revoke the certificate of a film if they receive complaints. It means that even films that are five years or ten years old which may not be showing now in the theatres but on television screens which state thinks problematic can be taken down,”

The CBFC is liberal or rigid based on the government in power. For example, Films criticizing the BJP may get certification when congress is in power and films criticizing the congress may get certification when BJP is in power. Films that were made in the past which criticize the BJP might have the chance to get banned now. So, It’s a lot of random power with the state,” Rajesh Rajamani, film critic and director of the film ‘The discreet charm of the Savarnas’ told Maktoob.

He opined that ideally CBFC should only act as a certifying body but there is a need for some sort of censorship also.

“The CBFC should ideally certify the films into more creative categories apart from the age limit and can warn the audience about what is there in the film. At the same time, it’s a tricky situation in a country like India. In my opinion, we do need some sort of censorship. But it’s a two edged sword. For example, people may end up making films that criminalize the already underprivileged sections of society. How do we keep a check on these things? As we are already in an unequal society, these films can trigger anger against the minority groups. Hence, there can be an independent body to look at such films for certification. But that body should not be controlled by the state,” Rajesh adds.

The other major change proposed in the draft bill is penalising the act of piracy.

“Piracy is also happening because of a certain gap between supply and demand. People want it but they are not able to afford it. When the market understands these demands and acts accordingly, piracy can be much reduced. So I think the state should approach more holistically than penalty to solve the problem,” Rajesh says.

The draft comes shortly after the dissolution of Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) in April, which was a panel for filmmakers to approach if the other two panels of the CBFC refused to issue a certificate. The first panel is the examining committee and the second is the revising committee. In the wake of this decision, the only way now left for any filmmaker is to approach the relevant High Court if they are not satisfied with a decision of CBFC.

“This is a way to entertain narratives which are only in favour of the rightwing. All the machinery of the state is used for that and this draft also comes as a part of it.” says Malayalam filmmaker Muhsin Parari on the introduction of the new draft bill. He went on to add that it’s time for the film fraternity to stand together beside their disagreements and respond to the attempts to silence filmmakers, academicians and intellectuals.

Parari agrees with Rajesh when he speaks of penalising piracy. “The issue of piracy is a complex thing and it depends upon the culture of the film industry too. We can curb the menace of piracy only through bringing changes in the industry. For that, there should be another policy,” Parari adds.

According to Documentary filmmaker Shilpi Gulati, the new laws on censorship can change the face of Indian cinema forever.

“This bill challenges the principles of separation of powers in our democracy. After the dissolution of FCAT, if a filmmaker is unhappy with the board’s decision they will have to go to the High court. Even if the filmmaker wins and gets a certificate for the film, the government can still pull back the certificate. This means that the final word will remain with the state which is unconstitutional. In the last 20 years in our country, a certain form of non constitutional mob censorship has been happening. Therefore, if this bill becomes an act and if certain groups or vote banks of the government in power appeal against a film, it can be taken back which is a violation of freedom of expression granted by our constitution,” says Gulati who is a two time national award winning filmmaker.

Shilpi Gulati along with a group of young, independent filmmakers which includes Prateek Vats and other prominent members have taken the lead in issuing an appeal against the new bill late on Sunday night. It states: “As another blow to the film fraternity, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has proposed new amendments to the Cinematograph Act under which the Central Government would have the power to revoke or recall certification of films which have already been cleared by the Censor Board. Undermining the sovereignty of the Censor Board and the Supreme Court, this provision will effectively give the Central Government supreme power over cinema exhibition in the country potentially endangering freedom of expression and democratic dissent. This will also render filmmakers powerless at the hands of the state as more vulnerable to threats, vandalism and intimidation of mob censors.”

They have also drafted a response to the Ministry of I&B providing suggestions to the draft bill along with substantive reasoning. “We have formulated the suggestions based on recommendations of Justice Mukul Mudgal committee 2013 and veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal Committee 2016. We strongly recommend that this amendment should be dropped and no new proviso be added granting revisionary powers to the Government. If that happens, it will be a dangerous situation,” Shilpi adds. The filmmaker is also researching for the past three years about the censorship that has been happening in India since 2000.

In the past, various judgements by the Supreme court and other high courts have stressed upon the importance of artistic freedom in the larger context of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. In S. Rangarajan Etc vs. P. Jagjivan Ram, 1989 SCR (2) 204, the Supreme Court observed, “Movies are the legitimate and the most important medium in which issues of general concern can be treated.” The court went on to add “The State cannot prevent open discussion and open expression, however, hateful to its policies.”

“We disagree with the proposed recommendations that give power to the central government which was struck down earlier by the Supreme court. It is illegal because it’s against the judiciary. It then gives power to any political government to have the final say about what the film discourse should be in the country. That will be the ultimate cut on freedom of expression,” Aadhith V Sathwin, the president of FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) students union told Maktoob.

FTII students are planning to release a press statement joining with SRFTI (Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute) on the new bill.

He also stressed upon the need to define the term ‘Public Exhibition’ which is mentioned in the amendments. “The word public exhibition must be defined better. It should only include the commercial screenings as there are multiple other spaces or forums where films are shown for non commercial purposes. For example, in FTII we have film screenings which are strictly for educational purposes. Hence, the term should be defined better which is not mentioned in the proposed amendments,” Aadith adds.

The window for public consultation of the Bill ends on 2 July. People can write directly to the ministry of I&B with their suggestions on the bill at [email protected]