This article was written by Asmita Rakhecha a student of University of Calcutta.
Ever since it’s advent in India, motion pictures brought about a radical change in the perspective of people in an immense manner. The visual and areal appeal were not the only factors responsible for this form of art to gain widespread acceptance. However, the way in which a story unfolded, the characters came to life, and thus an idea was born was what helped transform motion pictures into the industry it is today. Once an idea is born, questions follow, and thus the need for channelizing the flow of questions arise. With this, censorship came to life. Motion pictures have always found a way to provoke the viewers to think and to feel.In order to ensure that the line of thinking was not one which instigated the masses or which hurt the sentiments of certain communities, some safeguards were laid down.
The Indian Cinematograph Act came into effect in 1920 and the Indian Cinematograph Committee was established in 1927 by the British Raj to ensure that motion pictures did not circulate any seditious message among the common masses and prompt a revolution. With the independence of India in 1947, it was expected that cinema too, would enjoy its share of independence. The Cinematograph Act of 1952 was passed and with this the Central Board of Film Censors, popularly known as the Censor Board, saw the light of the day. As per the Act of 1952 the main task of this board was to award certificates to the movie regarding the discretion with which it could be viewed. Section 5B of the Act states that, the Board would follow certain principles in awarding a certificate to a movie. This would require the Board to examine “if the film or any part of it is against the interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.” Guided by these principles, the Board could issue different certificates based on the content of the movie; ‘U’ or ‘UA’ certificate, for unrestricted public exhibition, ‘A’ or ‘S’ certificate, for restricted public exhibition to adults or a certain section of people. However, as per Section 4 of the Act, the Board also enjoys the power to “direct the applicant to carry out such excisions or modifications in the film as it thinks necessary before sanctioning the film for public exhibition” or it can even “refuse to sanction the film for public exhibition.”
These powers awarded to the Board often raises the question of relevance of the freedoms awarded by the Constitution of India, namely, the Freedom of Speech and Expression granted under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. This Article guarantees to all the citizens of India which includes the film industry, the liberty to create art without facing the wrath of the Censor Board. However this has not been the case. K. A. Abbas v. Union of India (1971 AIR 481) was one of the most pertinent cases for the film industry where, for the first time the Supreme Court addressed important questions with regard to censorship of films in contrast to the Freedom of Speech and Expression applicable to said films. The petitioner in this case had made a documentary film, ‘A Tale of Four Cities’ which portrayed the stark difference between the lifestyles of the poor and the rich. In order to conceptualise the idea behind the movie, some clips of red light areas were incorporated into the film. The Censor Board on examining the movie decided to certify it with an ‘A’ rating. On an appeal of re-examination by the petitioner, the Board agreed to certify the movie with a ‘U’ rating if certain cuts were made. Disappointed with the results, the petitioner decided to file a petition with the Supreme Court of India demanding redressal on the ground that the Board had encroached upon his Freedom of Speech and Expression by imposing censorship on the film. The Court on this occasion, held that as per Article 19 (2) censorship of films was justified as it was a universally accepted fact that motion pictures were to be treated different from other forms of art due to the gravity of influence it can have on people.
However the real question lies in recognizing the extent of the power of the Censor Board and if such power is arbitrary in its execution. The Censor Board ideally consists of twenty five members headed by one Chairperson. The present Chairperson, Pahlaj Nihalani was appointed in January 2015, and his appointment caused a huge row which led to several members of the board resigning due to Nihalani’s political ties. The Censor Board when combined with Politics can only lead to disastrous results. The most recent controversy regarding the content of the movie ‘Udta Punjab’ saw the Censor Board in sticky grounds once again. After the original review of the movie, the producers and directors of the movie were asked to incorporate eighty nine cuts to the film and the Board awarded the movie with an ‘A’ certificate. A petition was filed with the Bombay High Court questioning the unreasonable demands of the Censor Board. The High Court held that only one cut to the movie was to be made. It also clarified the role of the Censor Board as a Board that primarily certifies films and not censors them. The Censor Board’s demands to remove the word ‘Punjab” from the title of the movie and words such as ‘elections’ and ‘parliament’ were held by the Bombay High Court to be baseless and the court believed that the Censor Board was not acting in its power while indirectly instructing movie makers regarding the subject line on which films should be made. The Court gave its judgement in favour of artistic freedom and against unruly censorship.
One of the main reasons behind establishing a separate board to certify movies for public viewing by the Government of India was to ease the burden of the courts, however the ‘Udta Punjab’ controversy has brought before the viewers the gross difference in opinions existing between the Judges and the Censor Board. This drives people to question the credibility of decisions delivered by such a Board time and again. Moreover, The Cinematograph Act which was passed in 1952 may not find itself to be as relevant in the twenty first century as it was found to be in the post-independence era. With globalization at its peak, films are an important medium through which new ideas, expressions and pressing issues are provided a platform for widespread viewing and exposure. Censoring these very ideas, is what hurts the sovereignty of our country the most, which boasts of Freedom of Speech and Expression. The burning question of the hour is whether censorship laws in India need to be revamped in order to accommodate itself with the changing times, or is it the Censor Board which needs to broaden its horizons.