Messenger of God row: A farce called film certification

  • Gautaman Bhaskaran, Hindustan Times, Chennai
  • Updated: Jan 17, 2015 15:36 IST

Film certification in India has been a farce for many, many years. For a long time, I have been writing and saying that this system of certifying a movie as A (only adults) or UA (children over 12 though they must be accompanied by their parents) or U (universal) is defeatist. It serves absolutely no purpose.

I have seen young children trooping into theatres across India – chaperoned by their parents – showing the bloodiest, the goriest, the most sadistic and the most violent films. Cinemas have stopped stopping children from sitting through such screenings. Given the shrinking profits – particularly in States like Tamil Nadu where a ticket cannot be priced above Rs 120 – theatre managements would rather let a seat be occupied by a child than let it go vacant.

Yet, there was a time in the 1960s and the 1970s when cinemas insisted on proof of age if there was the slightest of doubt about one walking into an adults-only show.

Here, one can turn around and ask whether parents are not as much to be blamed as theatres. Why do they accompany their children to movies that they are not supposed to see? I would presume parenting in modern India is driven by guilt. (But that is a debate for a later date.)

It only follows, then, that certification tends to become a meaningless exercise.

In this context, the recent resignation of Leela Samson as the chief of the Central Board of Film Certification assumes significance. She quit over the speedy clearance of the film, Messenger of God. Starring the controversial religious body head, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the movie was opposed by several groups in Punjab on the ground that it was blasphemous. Singh has claimed to be Guru Gobind Singh in the past.

Samson told the media that the Board had not cleared Messenger of God, but an appellate tribunal – which the film’s producers moved – had done so in less than 24 hours. Usually, the tribunal takes a long time to decide on a movie. "It is a mockery of Central Board of Film Certification. My resignation is final. The officers of the organisation are chosen by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting like political party workers are," Samson averred.

But the Board itself has not always been above board – political interference or not. For years, there have been allegations of corruption among the officers. They have been accused of accepting bribes to either clear a film quickly or give it a favourable certificate like U – which can mean more viewers.

Last August, the CEO of the Central Board of Film Certification, Rakesh Kumar, was arrested reportedly for accepting a bribe to pass a regional movie. It was also alleged then that some top Bollywood producers had paid him money to get their films speedily cleared – and perhaps with a U or UA.

Probably, this explains why a particular movie is passed through a brutal pair of scissors while another slides through unscathed. Obviously, something is amiss here. The Board asked for extensive cuts in The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, and its director, David Fincher, said nothing doing. The film could not be screened in India. And this is the reason why so many great movies never come to this country.

Vishal Bharadwaj’s latest Haider is said to have been allowed for public exhibition after 41 cuts!

Sex and nudity are a no no with the censors – and strangely so in this land of the Kama Sutra – while carnage and savagery as well as crude vulgarity (watch some of the item songs) and sexism are freely allowed. So many helmers have begun to copy Quentin Tarantino’s style of choreographed violence. Look at the way blood spurts out creating designs in the air. Tamil cinema is most guilty here. Examples, Subramaniapuram and Aaranya Kaandam. Or Singam.

What is equally perturbing is the "extra-constitutional" censorship. After the Board allows a film for viewing, some group or the other finds something objectionable, and threatens to burn down theatres that dare to show the movie. Often, the so-called objectionable issues are religious.

It is time, it is time that the Government – which controls the Board – sets this institution in order. It must have officers who are clean, who are not political appointees and who, above all, understand cinema in its entirety. Samson is certainly a brilliant dancer, but I have always wondered what her relationship to cinema is.

Finally, let us get rid of film certification. Instead, let us have a system of rating (above eight, above 13, above 15, above 18) like the one that is followed is the USA or UK. And any theatre flouting this must be punished with a cancellation of its licence.

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