Censorship and artistic freedom: An age-old battle

Censorship and artistic freedom: An age-old battle

The censorship debate is like the proverbial old wine in a new bottle. The new bottle is Pahlaj Nihlani, the old wine is reasonable curbs on artistic freedom. Let’s first get the pretentious out of the way.

What is the need of film certification by a state appointed body? The bombastic alibi of “safeguarding public taste and morality” apart, the state feels compelled to uphold societal norms, forever seeking to mollify both conservative and liberal constituencies.

Secondly, it wishes to keep a hawk-eye on potentially incendiary cinematic ideas which could agitate, offend, provoke and create social and political upheavals. Finally, it bears the responsibility of ensuring age-appropriate content for young audiences. But there is a strong political sub-text as well, which for all the pious pronouncements about freedom of expression, is the big elephant in the room.

On the other side, filmmakers are over-selling the impossibly utopian principle of absolute cinematic freedom. Cinema is too pervasive a mass medium to be left unexamined and some review system is inevitable, even desirable, as in every other facet of democratic life. Also filmmakers cannot argue passionately that cinema is a powerful artistic medium in one breath and then deny that it might adversely affect the minds, hearts, attitudes, behaviour and sometimes even actions of some viewers. These two arguments are traps and it would help immensely if filmmakers debated on the merits of each case instead of generalised, lofty and cliched ideals. The Udta Punjab controversy is a perfect example of how filmmakers can successfully win this battle of convictions.

But what about small filmmakers of feature films, documentaries and short films, who do not have the wherewithal to fight the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)? What are they to do? Shouldn’t the industry be coming together to do something concrete, like setting up a fund or forum or at least an advisory cell for small filmmakers to be able to contest the CBFC? Wouldn’t that be far more effective for cinematic freedom in India?

For every Udta Punjab, there are several films that have to quietly capitulate to censorship without any media furore. Isn’t their artistic freedom equally important? Or is censorship just an elitist tussle between a powerful government body and commercial cinematic entities? One irksome question is that would any high court have entertained a similar petition from an unknown, small filmmaker and decided it on such a priority basis? Very unlikely.

We come then to the crux of the debate, which is about control. The government, through the CBFC, wants to control possible creative excesses and more significantly, retain the power to exercise such control arbitrarily. Whereas filmmakers also seek control–albeit complete creative control–over the content they wish to show their audience. What is art if not unrestricted creative depiction, presentation and interpretation? It is these elements alone that give it meaning, individuality and hence artistic value. Why would any filmmaker accept infringement on these elements, that too by dubious high priests of culture, morality and patriotism, making eccentric demands?

But in this tussle, what about the viewer? What control does he have over what he is going to watch? People buy tickets and unlike most other works of art, this is a blind purchase, with no possibility of a refund. What if someone does not want to see films that have too many cuss words or explicit scenes of violence or sex or as in the case of Udta Punjab, watch Shahid Kapoor urinating? It’s fine to call them dinosaur or uptight, but in the real world, all kinds of tastes do exist. Cinema can be just entertainment or else a paradigm-changing experience. Either way, it acts on the viewer. So isn’t the viewer, for whom films are purportedly made, entitled to have some indicator to decide whether he would like to watch the content in the film?

Enlightened certification

That is why there is a strong case for enlightened certification, the basis of which should not just be artistic freedom or statutory regulation but also to provide enough information for the viewer to be able to exercise the freedom of choice, which includes the prerogative not to have his sensibilities assaulted by stuff he/she does not wish to see or hear.

The Shyam Benegal Committee recommendations therefore come as a ray of hope for all stakeholders. First, it has re-emphasised restricting the function of CBFC to only certification, not censorship of any kind.

 Together with the Bombay High Court order rebuffing CBFC for behaving like a grandmother, this is a big leap for cinematic freedom. Secondly, it has suggested that U/A category to become more specific in terms of age suitability by further dividing it into U/A-12 and U/A-15, and the Adult Category to add one more sub-category as Adult with Caution to imply more disturbing content.

Thirdly, the committee has sought to prevent possible reigns of tyranny like Nihlani’s by proposing that the chairman and other board members should not dabble in daily work of CBFC and their roles be confined to overview and guidance alone. Furthermore, the CBFC advisory panels in all regions should be constituted of individuals recommended by reputed bodies like National Film Development Corporation, Federation of Film Societies of India, Film Federation of India, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and National Commission for Women to ensure that a more film-literate and socially progressive set of individuals are appointed, not political flunkies.

Indeed, if the Benegal Committee suggestions are combined with the Mudgal Committee recommendations of 2013, which proposed a complete revamp of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, it might just usher in the balanced film certification regime we want.

(The writer is a Pune-based author and filmmaker)

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