Opinion
It’s time the CBFC simply rated films, and let audiences decide what they should and should not watch.

Since Pahlaj Nihalani took over as chief of the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC), it seems that not a week goes by without the board creating some new controversy.

The latest controversial proposal from the CBFC is to certify a film as 'Adult' if it has characters lighting up a cigarette or drinking on screen. 

The Quint reported that Nihalani said, “Merely putting a ticker warning at some remote corner of the screen whenever there is smoking or drinking shown, is not enough anymore. We feel the superstars who are followed by millions and who set an example in societal behaviour must not be shown drinking or smoking on screen unless the provocation for doing so is really strong.”

To be fair to the CBFC Chairman, though, it isn't just India that’s arguing about whether actors smoking on screen makes more young people take to tobacco. 

In a 2012 report, the office of the Surgeon General of the United States asserted a “causal relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies and the initiation of smoking among young persons.”

In 2016, there was even a class action lawsuit filed against the Motion Picture Association of America, demanding that films showing tobacco imagery be rated ‘R’, meaning that anyone under 17 should be accompanied by a parent or guardian to watch such films.

The MPAA, though, defended itself on the grounds of free speech, and argued that its rating system was not meant to enforce a set of “socially appropriate values”, but provide a guidance for parents on what they would want their children watching. The court agreed with the MPAA and dismissed the case.

The MPAA’s defense rather nicely outlines the primary problem faced with the CBFC, still unofficially called the Censor Board. In recent months, the CBFC has been pilloried again and again for it’s interventionist policy towards films.

From demanding that words like “cow” be censored from a documentary on Amartya Sen to refusing certification to Lipstick Under My Burkha because of its “lady-oriented” theme, many of the CBFC’s decisions have been attacked as regressive and condescending towards film viewers. 

Detractors have often said that the CBFC enforces a particular morality on film viewers and denies them the choice to decide for themselves what is appropriate for viewing. 

One of the big problems with a blanket regulation on showing alcohol on screen, for instance, is that it blurs the line between depicting something on screen and valourising or validating it. For instance, if a film should deal with the problem of alcoholism, the proposed regulation would still push it into the adult category. But who’s to say that minors shouldn’t learn about alcoholism from film? The line gets even grayer when we come to artistic works that deliberately refrain from giving out an easy moral message.

Why not simply certify films for different age groups and let viewers decide for themselves, the detractors ask?

After all, even if we should think the debate on the link between on screen depictions and off screen behaviour is direct (and that debate is still far from settled), the uneven standards applied to what is inappropriate for young audiences raises many questions. 

Films that validate violence, misogyny, and sexist behaviours like stalking and street sexual harassment routinely pass by the censors and only earn a ‘U’ (unrestricted) or ‘U/A’ (under adult supervision) certification. Where then do we draw the dividing lines and how much censorship can the CBFC demand without shutting down creative freedom?

For his part, Nihalani has said that a progressive certification system is impossible under the current system governing the CBFC. "People are not aware of how the CBFC works. There is an act, a rulebook and guidelines as per which we can certify the films. Unlike other countries, where they have 5-7 different ratings, India only has 3,” Nihalani said.

Some steps towards rectifying this situation have indeed been suggested by the Shyam Benegal committee, constituted to limit the powers of the CBFC. Among other things, the committee has recommended that new categories like “adult with caution”, “UA 12+” and “UA 15+” be created to bring in a more graduated system of ratings. 

But if these expanded ratings should simply become new boundaries to be decided by the CBFC for audiences, then even such a system would be wasted. Instead, it’s time that audiences are trusted more. One way forward would be to provide more descriptive certification – the MPAA, for instance, mentions factors like language, violence, nudity and so on, for giving a particular rating. This system, then, leaves it to audiences to decide what they should and shouldn’t watch. 

If we should worry about young, impressionable viewers, it’s not as if governments can have any real control over what children can access. In the last instance, it falls to parents and guardians to regulate what their children see and don’t see, and there’s no reason parents can’t make that decision in theatres as at home.

Note: The views expressed in this piece are personal.