Looking London, Talking Tokyo’ was a cruel expression used in our youth for those with a pronounced squint. But it is also came to be used for those who say one thing but mean another. It was sometime in January that information and broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley said that ‘the days of bans are over’ — implying the pointlessness of imposing bans in the age of Internet connectivity.
However, within days of the Centre appointing Pahlaj Nihalani as the chief of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), he commented on the unfairness of censoring only films and videos while the Internet roamed free. He wanted to control the Internet too. Soon a diktat went out — Mumbai could not be allowed to be called Bombay, no cuss words, family values only... He went further to say that if films avoided controversy, there would be no need for censorship. Obviously the desire to control thought and morality was at the back of this desire to avoid controversy.
Suddenly the banning of films started with a vengeance. While it was some documentaries in 2014, this year started with fiction. 50 Shades of Grey was banned last month and was followed by Unfreedom just a few days ago. The first film brings bondage into sexual relations while the second looks at complexities in human relationships involving religious fundamentalism as well as same-sex love. With the producer of the first film willing to accept cuts, the CBFC could have offered it an Adult rating. But the thought of allowing any kind of alternative sexuality on screen is anathema to the CBFC. This perverse morality is not restricted to the current board because the last, supposedly progressive, one gave an adult rating to The Grand Budapest Hotel after removing all scenes that could have possibly been considered ‘adult’.
Our ‘censors’ live in denial and blatant illegality. The Cinematographic Act, which governs the existence of the CBFC, calls upon the board to act primarily as a certifying agency. Only in extreme circumstances, when certain scenes in a film call for what are termed ‘reasonable restrictions’ on free speech, is the board entitled to seek the removal of that scene or sometimes, deny certification to the film. In interpreting these ‘reasonable restrictions’ the Supreme Court has been very categorical — asserting that there must be something real to warrant intervention. A minor perceived threat either to morality or our conception of the well-being of the State cannot be reason enough to interfere with free speech.
But the CBFC works as a moral brigade without any regard to the Constitution. It has a narrow view of the world and a wide view of its own powers. In this it is aided by a surreptitious set of guidelines put out by the ministry over two decades ago. These guidelines list what the board may or may not permit. While the framing of guidelines is within the powers of the State, the extent of intervention is restricted by the ‘reasonable restrictions’ mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Constitution. A brief look at two of these ‘guidelines’ would make clear the nature of intervention the ministry seeks, which is far beyond what the Constitution permits: ‘As far as possible the film is of aesthetic value and cinematically of a good standard’ and ‘visuals or words which promote communal, obscurantism, anti-scientific and anti-national attitudes are not presented’. Such restrictions turn the CBFC into a film editor, deciding a film’s aesthetic merit and seeing whether it promotes a scientific temper or not.
The absurdity of banning does not strike our censors. Clips of documentaries that are censored find their way on to online portals where they are viewed by about a hundred times more people than those who would have ever seen the entire film. As soon as Unfreedom was banned, its trailer, with ‘forbidden scenes’, found its way on to the Internet, where almost 500,000 people saw it in just a few days. When the Centre banned the telecast of Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter it didn’t anticipate that the ban would drive people to view the documentary online. It made the government look silly and backward in the eyes of the world.
A new position the CBFC has taken is that documentaries need to be treated differently from fiction — that whereas fiction is fantasy, documentaries are a ‘real’ representation of reality and therefore more dangerous. Besides being conceptually naïve, such a view finds no support in the Cinematographic Act, which makes no distinction between different kinds of films.
A film may not get past the censors but there is nothing to stop its screening on television. Yet, this anachronism continues — anything called a film or video is to be certified but similar content on television or the Internet is not. The desire for control over films dates back to the time when the cinema was the only medium that could be called mass media. Times have changed, social mores have changed, access to a huge universe has opened up but the narrow mindset of control continues — confident in the illusion that thought control is all that stands between order and anarchy. That is the biggest delusion of all.
Pankaj Butalia is a documentary film-maker
The views expressed by the author are personal