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Why Shashi Tharoor’s CBFC amendment bill must not pass

Despite all the well deserved ill repute that the Indian Censor Board has, it is a reasonably well-architected institution. While this may be a surprising statement to make about the CBFC, it is true. The CBFC is transparent since ‘cut recommendations’ are made over the table and ‘cut lists’ are made available publicly (with hiccups). The board is appealable — there’s a revision committee in addition to the examining committee that a filmmaker has to face first. And if neither leads to an acceptable outcome, there’s always the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, which often significantly revises Censor Board decisions to the filmmaker’s benefit.

Opposition MP Shashi Tharoor recently introduced the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2018. This bill threatens to undermine those redeeming qualities of the Censor Board’s architecture, and in its current form, it should not pass. 

Why is the Cinematograph Amendment Bill flawed?

Taking away the Censor Board’s censorship powers — which is the primary change made by this Bill — seems like a very attractive objective. But it is an impossible goal without the abolition of the Censor Board itself. Tharoor’s bill (in line with Shyam Benegal’s recommendations) maintains the Censor Board’s monopoly over which movies enter the theatres and which ones don’t. This is key. Filmmakers will always prefer lower age ratings, since they are tied to a greater likelihood of getting tax breaks. Tharoor’s amendment bill does not address this reality. It also does nothing to demolish the hurdles that stand in the way of studios giving filmmakers the freedom to make movies with mature themes — and higher age ratings.

Also, it’s not like there aren’t any powerful censor boards in countries that otherwise have high levels of free speech. In the UK, for instance, the BBFC has censorship powers which are rarely exercised. This is the key difference between the Indian Censor Board and the British one — membership. With membership comes values, and values will guide the extent of interference into free speech. Tharoor’s Bill does not make any changes to how the members of the CBFC are selected. Without these reforms, nominally taking away censorship powers might as well amount to taking away transparency and nothing else. Just ask Korea’s censor board which doesn’t have censorship powers but frequently only clears films for release – after the filmmakers have made edits that the public will never know about.

Age ratings

Updating age ratings to have more than just three tiers is a good outcome. The Shyam Benegal committee’s recommendations rightly suggest the same thing. But this too is incomplete without a significant overhaul of what filmmakers can and cannot display in films with those ratings. Tharoor’s bill introduces guidelines that, while better than status quo, could be used as a tool by the Censor Board to recommend cuts. Take the adults-only ‘A’ rating guidelines, for instance:

(i) Discrimination — While there may be discriminatory themes and languages in the film, the film as a whole shall not endorse or glorify discriminatory language or behavour;
(ii) Psychotropic Substances, Liquor, Smoking, Tobacco — Imbibing of these elements may be shows, but the work as a whole shall not promote or encourage misuse of the same. The misuse of easily accessible and highly dangerous substances (for example, aerosols or solvents) is not acceptable;
(iii) Imitable behaviour — Dangerous behaviour (for example, committing suicide or inflicting self-harm) shall not be shown in detail that could be copied by others. Context, realism and setting shall determine the acceptability of depiction of easily accessible weapons;
(iv) Language — Very strong language, including abuse and vulgar words is permitted;
(v) Nudity—There may be nudity, even in a sexual context, but without explicit detail;
(vi) Sex—Sexual activity may be portrayed but without strong detail. References to sexual behaviour is permitted, but very strong reference can only be justified in context. Works whose primary purpose is sexual arousal or stimulation is not acceptable;
(vii) Fear, Threat & Horror—There may be strong threat and horror. A sustained focus on sadistic or sexual threat is not acceptable;
(viii) Violence—Strong violence is permitted, but explicit gory images are not acceptable. Strong sadistic violence is not acceptable, there may be detailed verbal references to sexual violence but the depiction of sexual violence must be discreet and justified by context.

(emphasis added)

What constitutes imitable dangerous behaviour? What constitutes strongly detailed sexual activity? How about explicit gore? Why are these things not being allowed in a movie that only adults are permitted to watch? The Censor Board has vast powers of subjectivity here. These loose guidelines again feed into an environment where filmmakers have to resort to long-drawn litigation to get their work released unscathed. Remember, the membership doesn’t change with this bill. How can the attitude of the board change then?

The way forward

It may truly be impossible to get rid of theatrical film censorship without the abolition of the Censor Board. Thankfully, digital releases — even of theatrically censored films — do not have to hew to the CBFC’s standards of ‘decency.’ Tharoor’s bill maintains that status quo, and that’s a good thing. But it may end up backfiring in its aim of reducing board interference into films. That aim can only be achieved with legislation that is keenly aware of the outcome of the changes it enacts, and protective of the protections and institutional safeguards that already exist.

A content regulation body being conservative and invasive is not inevitable. Just look at the Broadcast Content Complaints Council — even in a conservative country like India, it has managed for the most part to be a liberal institution. But that’s a self-regulatory committee.

Government oversight of film releases in India is a reality. For that reality to change, legislation has to be realistic. It needs to effectively reduce the power that individuals in the Board have, and amplify the rights of the filmmakers. De-linking tax incentives with lower age ratings is important. Having more specific guidelines that prioritize free speech over an aversion to ‘explicit content’ is important. And most importantly, changing how the Board’s membership is constituted could make or break how the CBFC functions. It is these structural improvements that must take precedence over the tempting but dangerous design changes that Tharoor’s bill — and even Shyam Benegal’s recommendations — would make to India’s film censorship regime.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore under CC BY SA 2.0

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