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If a film offends, you don't have to watch it

The Central Board of Film Certification's job should be to issue age appropriate certification, not play a public morality nanny with scissors in hand at the slightest whiff of sex, politics and religion. A nation of Perpetually Hurt Sentiment has no shortage of moral minders, writes Namita Bhandare.

columns Updated: Jan 31, 2015 00:04 IST
Namita Bhandare
Namita Bhandare
Hindustan Times
Central Board of Film Certification,CBFC,Namita Bhandare

For a party that talks of less government, more governance, this was an opportunity missed. The controversy over the resignation of the previous chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) notwithstanding, this was a chance to dismantle what one commentator calls a 'Soviet-era censor board'.

Instead what we have is one board gone, replaced by one packed with BJP members and sympathisers. The new chairman, producer Pahlaj Nihalani is perhaps better known as the composer of Har Ghar Modi, the party's 2014 election anthem. Others like Vani Tripathi Tikoo and George Baker are BJP members. Actress Jeevitha is the party's spokesperson in Telangana.

As citizens, they are entitled to their political views and I'm prepared to grant an innocent-till-proven-guilty certificate. Equally irrelevant is the historical examination of how previous governments also made political appointments. The point is not who started it but who will end it.

This is where the BJP lost its chance.

The world has changed since the passage of the Cinematograph Act in 1952. Technology and social media has enlarged the definition of who is a film-maker (everyone it seems) and you can pretty much download and watch anything. What hasn't changed is the government playing big brother.

Although we use lazy shorthand to call it a censor board - the original name given by the British to control sedition in Indian cinema - the CBFC, as the name implies, examines issues of certification.

Advisory panels watch films and decide whether they are suitable for children or adults. But panels, like the board, are packed with people 'affiliated to some political, religious and social group', finds the 2013 Justice Mukul Mudgal report. And instead of sticking to certification, the CBFC has morphed into a public morality nanny, scissors in hand at the slightest whiff of sex, politics and religion.

A nation of Perpetually Hurt Sentiment has no shortage of moral minders. At any given point, someone, somewhere is outraged. Now, four petitioners want a stay on Hawaizaada for its 'wrongful' portrayal of Shivkar Bapuji Talpade - hailed at January's Indian Science Congress for building the world's first airplane before the Wright Brothers. How can a nationalist Vande Mataram reciting Talpade be shown in such less-than-lofty pursuits as 'liquor and illicit relations'?

We tend to quietly acquiesce to bullies, blackmailers and their muscle. We certainly don't need an additional gatekeeper of morality. The CBFC must recall its nomenclature - certification, not censorship - and just get on with the job of issuing age-appropriate certificates as the American independent agency, Classification and Ratings Administration, does.

Yet, in the short while since he's taken over, Nihalani has already prepared a list of forbidden cuss words and lamented over nudity on television and the Internet, which are beyond his jurisdiction. And, he says, he will ensure 'no religious sentiments are hurt'.

We have more than enough sections in our law that ensure our increasingly thin-skinned religious sentiments are kept intact; section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 298 (deliberate intent to wound religious feeling) etc. It is not the mandate of the CBFC to play police or judge.

Film-makers, already piqued by mandatory smoking and alcohol warnings, argue for artistic freedom. Equally, there are concerns about how women, for instance, or violence or religion are depicted. But cinema in addition to entertaining us, must also provoke. It leads to questions about society and the challenges we face. In an environment where books are pulped, art exhibitions pulled down and movies banned how can we expect anything other than Chulbul Pandey's antics (by the way, offensive to me, but then I didn't watch).

The CBFC must be alive to the threats to our constitutional freedoms. We need a board that will stand for creativity, not create lists of banned words. We need a chairman who tells bullies, if it offends, don't watch. And, yes, we need less government in the world of art and cinema, not a 'censor board' that decides what we may watch.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Jan 30, 2015 23:57 IST