Censoring Indian Cinema

9 Feb

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”

    -John F. Kennedy

The Central Board of Film Certification (often referred to as the Censor Board) is a statutory censorship and classification body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. It is tasked with “regulating the public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act 1952”. It assigns certifications to films, television shows, television ads, and publications for exhibition, sale or hire in India. Films can be publicly exhibited in India only after they are certified by the Board.

Cinema has always been a medium of expression and communication. It is a source of entertainment, knowledge and employment. It helps us escape for a while, from the worries and anxieties of life. It plays an important role in the social, moral and political life of an individual. Cinema also highlights various emotion of human life; they include love, sadness, anger, deception, fright, guilt etc. It’s a way of enlightening people on social evils like dowry, child marriage, drinking, drug addiction, smoking etc. In other words it’s a catalyst for change. Almost every person has sometime or the other gone to a cinema hall and enjoyed a film.

In spite of all this, movies are still banned on several pretext, the most common one being, ‘it hurts religious sentiments of a particular community. Several movies in the past   have faced troubles with the censor board. Shekhar Kapur movie Bandit Queen was banned because of explicit content but the producers weren’t ready to take no for an answer and they approached the Supreme Court which gave them permission to release the movie. Others didn’t have such good luck. Black Friday and Parzania both movies focused on the riots in Mumbai and Gujarat were banned because it would create communal tension. Or in other words certain politicians could not bear to see their deeds showcased on nation television. A look at the reaction to Deepa Mehta’s Fire gives further insight about the concern of the State and other dominant groups toward sexuality. The Shiv Sena stopped the film from being screened by tearing down the posters and threatening the theatre owners. The objection was that Fire showed a lesbian relationship, which according to its opponents was against Indian tradition and distorts Indian culture. Here it is an alternative sexuality that threatens the notion of Indian Family.

Beside these other movies that faced trouble include the Karan Johar Movie My Name is Khan After Shahrukh Khan (who owns
the Kolkata Knight Riders cricket team) criticized the fact that members of the Pakistani Cricket Team were not bought by the clubs competing in the 2010 Indian Premier League (IPL), he was condemned by Shiv Sena, a Hindu  political party. There were
consequent protests and demonstrations against him and demands that theatres in India should refuse to screen the movie.  The threat did not work. Similarly there was a outcry in many states by some groups among the Christian minorities demanding a ban on Hollywood movie Da Vinci Code. It was alleged that the film was anti-Christianity. This issue had even brought the minister responsible to view the film along with the senior Catholic representatives. Ultimately, the movie was allowed to release without any cuts but with an A (Adults Only) certification from the Central Board for Film Certification and a fifteen second disclaimer added at the end stating that the movie was purely a tale of fiction.

Some films about the Gujarat carnage were not allowed to be screened at a college in Bombay Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of Bhartiya Janata Party, complained to the police that the films might disturb the city’s peace. The videotapes were confiscated by the police, who said that they were stopping the screening to maintain law and order. Instead of providing protection to those who want to show the film, which is their fundamental right, the police stopped its screening on the insistence of those who were party to the riots.

Films have a lasting impression on the minds of the viewer for example films like Kahaani, A Wednesday, Peepli [Live], Udaan, Awara, are still fresh in the minds of the audience. Films generate popular culture and create cultural waves such as in fashion and mannerism. It is due to these characteristics that masses from all levels are attracted to them. Films also have a strong psychological impact on people. The extent of reality that can be presented though films is far greater than any other medium.

Today across the cultural spectrum, artistic freedom is under assault. Free expression in popular music, photography, painting, cinema and other arts is threatened by pressure from lawmakers, prosecutors and self-appointed guardians of morality and taste. Therefore  more and more music stores, museums, schools, theaters, television stations, bookstores and video shops are restricting the display or availability of   images and words deemed to be offensive to one group of citizens or another.

The most recent ban is on the Kamal Hassan movie Vishwaroopam. It was banned in several states including his hometown Tamil Nadu after sections of Muslims claimed that the movie hurt their religious sentiments, objecting that the terrorist in the film is a Muslim character.

The film production and distribution system in contemporary India is so tuned that it is difficult for a filmmaker with an alternative view to raise funds to make a film and show it. If after a lot of struggle, one does make a film with an alternative viewpoint it faces sever trouble with the censor board and then with right wing groups that make sure the movie doesn’t see the light of day.

It is therefore important to give cinema a chance to show case what is truly happening in our country and around the world without banning or censoring the content that one is not to comfortable broadcasting. The picture speaks a universal language which is understood by the whole of humanity. Films have an advantage of cutting across linguistic and other barriers such as illiteracy and age. It is the best possible way too involves people from a large section of society that has been deprived of knowledge and information in the past.

Given the reach and power of the film medium, without censorship there might be a flood of grade Z or reactionary films. Perhaps there is a different way of tackling this problem. It is time to look into the role that can be played by criticism, analysis, and cinema literacy rather than relying on a Censor Board that acts as a moral police and can also be a tool in the hands of the powerful to suppress voices of dissent.

 By: Steffi Ebnett

10 Responses to “Censoring Indian Cinema”

  1. jankipandya February 10, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    I agree to the view put forward, a wonderfully written piece. Our censor board seems to be more influenced by other reasons than Rationale. In our country everything and anything seems to hurt religious sentiments. Artists like Tiwari have to face imprisonment even if its just an expression of what he feels. At such times when Kamal Hassan is asked to trim his movie for the sake of secularism in the country, one has serious doubts over what freedom of speech and expression do we have in general and even more of cause do these artist who canvas reality and sentiments have. The Censor Board has to revisit its role and take tougher stands when it comes to protecting an Artist and his imagination.

  2. chaurahha February 10, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    Thank you janki for you honest feed back. i forgot to look at Tiwari and that issue.. a good reminder. Will keep in mind next time.

  3. nigel February 10, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

    basicallly our censor board is certifying films like as if we are in the 18th century, movies which get rated pg 13 in america or pg in canada come here as A y i have NO clue see moneyball latest example-_- all this needs to change most countries show nudity in the 15 certificate its high time we have a 15 certificate as well as a 21 certificate 21 for movies like saw and worse!!!! then we can say we are open minded🙂 and no cutting nudity in A movies thats like having a leg and not using it -_-

    • steffi February 10, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

      i do understand your point of view. i hope the ones taking decision learn to adjust with time.

  4. Zuleika Pereira February 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    I agree with you completely. India says that it is a democracy but with the way there are strong iron grips on what can be censored and what cant just because you dont know whose sentiments you are going to hurt sometimes does not allow a movie to fully express what it intended to in the first place. That being said it is probably because India is a democracy that the censor board feels it has a right to represent any party it feels may get hurt. Film makers have to also consider that if films are cut or banned from being screened that people will turn to alternative sources most popularly free content on the internet. But with politics guiding the actions of film releasing i don’t think the Censor Board is going to let up any time soon.

    • steffi February 10, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

      That’s exactly the irony of our democracy. Where on one hand we have our constitution that guarantee’s us right and on the other hand we have the censor board, which curtails these very rights.

  5. John Messi February 10, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    Well Written Steffi… Indian cinema needs people like you to keep them on track. Keep up the good wrok

    • steffi February 10, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

      thank you john.. i hope to try my best. in doing so

  6. mediacharchaa February 16, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    Hi this is a good and timely reminder of the perils of censorship in cinema. But I think a small distinction must be made about the certification awarded to a film for public screening – which is the job of the CBFC and the ‘banning’ of films you have cited. At the stage of certification, the films face various cuts and after the certificate is awarded, vigilante groups and political parties then begin flexing their muscles, undermining the certification process completely!

    In the Vishwaroopa matter, the Tamil Nadu government argued that a law and order probelm would ensue if the film was released, but this is a specious argument. It is the job of the government to maintain law and order. This should not be confused with the reasonable restriction of public order under Art 19 of the Constitution.

  7. steffi February 17, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    will definitely keep that distinction in mind the next time i write on this issue. thank you so much for bringing it to my notice.

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