‘Censorship’, is not just a word in India. For some fringe groups, in general, and the infamous Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in particular, it is more of an emotion. The unrestricted use of the tool in the recent times by the CBFC, for the sole purpose of being politically correct, is something that has clamped down on people’s creativity.
It is beyond question that checks and balances (read censorship) are vital when we talk about something as influential as films. The problem however arises when such checks and balances overshadow rationality and deliberately infringe upon the freedom of speech and expression that a democratic state like ours guarantees. The question, thus, is: Is censorship, in the form it is presently practiced, acceptable in a mature democracy like ours?
It was about fifty years ago that there was a major challenge to the constitutional validity of ‘Censorship’. The Supreme Court, in its historic judgment to the case of S. Rangarajan vs P. Jagjivan Ram, talked about the major impact cinema has on people’s minds. The apex court, in its judgment, also established the validity of ‘censorship’ (even pre-censorship) as a tool used by the state to check ‘objectionable’ material from reaching the public. It however failed to ensure that the tool, in the days to come, would be used in a responsible manner.
The Cinematograph Act, 1952 was nothing but a continuation of the colonial era censorship laws which were created for the sole purpose of curbing the freedom of speech and expression of the people. This continuation was made possible because the leaders then believed that the people were ‘very gullible’ (as pointed out by B.V. Keskar, the Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting at that time). To some extent, his argument is valid, because the consolidation of a newly independent country required such measures. Provided that more than 75% of the Indian population was illiterate during the 1950s and 60s, the people were indeed ‘very gullible’. But times have changed, and there has been a steep increase in what we call the ‘visual literacy level’. People today understand the difference between the real and the unreal, and the same logic that was used way back in the 1950s cannot possibly be used in the 21st century as well. So, the necessity of using the instrument of ‘censorship’ frequently, which undoubtedly existed in the initial years of our democracy, ceases to perpetuate in the present scenario.
Having said that, should I not call it an act of grave hypocrisy when the state allows every adult to make a decision as important as voting, but continues to choose for them what to see and what not to? If the people are considered capable of choosing their government, they are definitely capable of selecting which film to watch and which film to avoid watching. Thus, the very idea of censorship in a democracy is paradoxical.
The second question is about the lack of rationality shown by the CBFC in the recent times. The case of ‘Phillauri’, a film starring Anushka Sharma, shows the incoherent nature of the CBFC. Apparently, a scene with ‘Hanuman Challisa’ had to be muted because it ‘failed to scare away the ghost’. During its establishment, one of the principal objectives of the body was to restrict superstitious material from reaching the public. Now, with the ‘Phillauri’ incident, it has transformed into a body promoting superstition. The theatrical release of ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ was banned on grounds that “the story is lady-oriented, their fantasy above life.” If the Board is actually so serious about morality, it should also have banned films like ‘Kya Cool Hai Hum’ which objectify women, and undermine the concepts of morality and decency to a far greater extent. These unfortunate incidents manifesting ambivalence and apparent double-standards bring about the inevitable question: Is the CBFC competent to censor our films?
The problem of unnecessary censorship can only be eradicated if the powers of the Board get restricted to Certification, just the way it is in the United States. The responsibility of the Government should only be to ensure that the people understand very clearly the nature of film they are about to watch. Strict certification and regulation of the audience can solve most of the problems faced as a result of irresponsible film-making. Censorship, on the other hand, should be used only under exceptional circumstances and must be looked after by a more capable, reasoned and responsible body, like the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) that comprises retired judges and people with special knowledge in the field of cinema. Until then, creativity of the individual shall continue to be compromised.
Freedom of speech and expression is something that strengthens the base of a vibrant democracy. Be it painters, poets, film-makers or comedians; unless they can speak their minds without fear, our democracy will not be complete. Limiting people’s right to imagine and create, the way it is being presently done, will only weaken it.
The writer, Pranjal Mondal, is a student of Political Science at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.