The bill gives the union government the power to ask for recertification of a film that has already been certified by the CBFC.

A collage of director Kamal with white hair and specs, Anand Patwardhan in black and Vetri maaran with a beardKamal, Anand Patwardhan and Vetri Maaran
Flix Controversy Friday, June 25, 2021 - 19:50

Last Friday, the union government invited comments from the public on the draft Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill 2021. The bill would be an amendment on the Cinematograph Act, 1952, that “makes provision for the certification of cinematograph films for exhibition and for regulating exhibitions by means of cinematographs.” The new bill would give the union government the power to ask for recertification of an already certified film if there is any complaint against it. It would also penalise piracy and introduce age-based certification.

The move has come as a surprise to filmmakers since movies anyway go through multiple checks before the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) issues a certificate. “The censor board already has the power to check if a film meets the many criteria for getting a certificate and they suggest cuts. Many of us have been of the opinion that a censor board itself is not necessary and self-censoring is what is needed. And the censor board members are mostly there to protect the interests of a government in power. Now on top of that they are bringing a bill that could recall a film at any time. Anyone can complain and the film will be pulled back!” says Kamal, renowned Malayalam filmmaker and chairperson of the Kerala State Chalachithra Academy.

Many years ago a dialogue in his film Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal was cut by the state censor board. It had the character of Kuthiravattom Pappu asking ‘ithentha Punjab modelo’ (What’s this, a Punjab model?) in reference to a controversial speech made by late Congress politician R Balakrishna Pillai on the Khalistan movement. “At the time it was Congress rule in Kerala and the state censor board asked for the cut. I am saying we already have such a system in place. But this new bill makes it possible for anyone to make a complaint after a film is released. If a film that’s already in theatres is pulled off like that, the loss to producers will be so huge. Moreover, it simply means that no film that opposes the ideology of the union government can be screened,” Kamal adds.

Only this April, the union government had made another move that brought sharp criticism from filmmakers and producers – the Ministry of Law and Justice banned the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) with immediate effect. That was a panel the filmmakers could approach if the other two panels of the CBFC refused to issue a certificate. The first panel is the examining committee and the second is the revising committee. Now if the revising committee too rejects certification, a filmmaker not ready to make the recommended cuts will have to approach the court.

“It is their way of trying to control the narratives,” says critically acclaimed Tamil filmmaker Vetri Maaran on the introduction of the new bill. “Mainstream cinema is a strong determiner of political and social narrative. With the bill, they are trying to create a kind of monoculture narrative – means you either have one narrative or no narrative at all.”

He agrees with Kamal when he speaks of the censor board as ‘overambitious in terms of curtailing creative expression’. The original purpose of the board was only to categorise a film and not to implement any cuts in it, he says. “But then they were authorised to suggest cuts. And now the government can pull out a film that’s in theatres or an OTT platform. This gives immense power to the system as well as the people who have clout within the system. If I have 10,000 people ready to do what I ask them to then I can influence the outcome of any film. I can have protests, file complaints, go to court. With this new bill, both the filmmaker’s freedom and the film’s revenue are going to be affected. Already the governing body has so much power over creative expression. With this kind of a law, there is only going to be one narrative – a pro-government one. You can either be a pro-government filmmaker or not speak at all. Earlier at least you had the space. Now you are heard only if you are pro-government. That is dangerous.”

Vetri Maaran has spoken to RK Selvamani, secretary of Tamil Nadu Directors Association about making a move against the bill.

Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan however has little hope of any change from a government impervious to dissent. When even major mass movements of protest against the farm bills and the Citizenship Amendment Act have been met with disdain and punitive action, what chance do powerless filmmakers have, he asks.

“What they are planning is completely illegal and unconstitutional. The Cinematograph Act cannot be unilaterally changed with retrospective effect. The idea that they can recall a certificate that has already been issued, on the basis of a few orchestrated complaints makes a mockery of the process. The RSS or any group that has the ear of the present regime can always mobilize such complaints” Anand says.

The censor board’s decisions anyway reflect the politics of the government in power, says the man who made Ram Ke Nam in 1992 on the campaign by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to build a Ram Temple in Ayodhya. He made it just before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The film has a "U" certificate and was shown at prime time on Doordarshan in 1997 following a court order that stated that screening the film on national TV was in the public interest. 

Read: In conversation with Anand Patwardhan, the ‘accidental’ documentary filmmaker

He is enraged that any government could now come and destroy the certificates given by previous governments. “The sanctity of the certificate is destroyed if you can remove it any time the government changes. In any case when a government comes to power they change the composition of the censor board, putting people who follow their ideology in positions of power. That should not be the case in any healthy democracy.

The current government has been rewriting history ever since it came to power in 2014, says Anand. “They are destroying archives, they want to rewrite even the murder of Gandhi to hide their culpability. They have already destroyed a lot of historical evidence.  Look what is happening with the Central Vista (project) -- it is not only destroying heritage architecture but also will remove historical evidence saved in the National Museum. Removing a censor certificate that has been granted is a part of that process. I urge filmmakers, film lovers and all citizens who want to prevent history from being re-written to come together in one voice. If that does not happen some of us will once again mount a challenge in court."

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