Partner & Leader
Entertainment & Media
Much has been said and written in the recent past about the role of the Central Boar of Film Certification (CBFC), in relation to certification of movies and the standards and criteria applied. It is a debate not unique to India (other countries too have had their share of ‘controversies’), and it would be unwise to think that any significant level of clarity being brought to the law would mitigate such controversies in future (consider the example of the recent  Gawker case in the US, especially in light of the Larry Flint case , though it was not a matter in the domain of movies).
The fundamental issue that one has to consider is the apparent (and in a sense, real) conflict between freedom of expression/free speech (which in its ambit includes the freedom of artistic expression, whether literary, painting, sculpture, movies etc) and the apparent boundaries sought to be imposed for the appropriate functioning of a thriving civil society (ie maintaining public order, decency and morality, restricting defamation or court or commission of violence, fostering friendly relations with foreign states and maintaining national integrity).
So, as an example, would anti-war protestations (as witnessed during the Vietnam and Iraq wars) be seen as freedom of expression or should they be seen as anti-national? Let me take a more benign example to make a point (again not in the domain of films): a building is an expression of architectural freedom of expression. So when the Eiffel Tower was first constructed, it was seen to be repulsive and there was a huge public outcry calling for its demolition. Should it have been? Well, time has since suggested otherwise!
Also, one is all-too-familiar with the struggles that Vladamir Nabokov’s book Lolita went through with its publication, and subsequently the level of subtlety that Stanley Kubrick had to employ during the time of the Hollywood Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency, in adapting the book to the movie by the same name [much before Hollywood moved to a self-policing ratings system]. The recent cinematic versions of Lolita are far more explicit.
So, the point is, at an overall level where the Indian Cinematograph Act, 1952 allows the Board to refuse certification where it is seen to cross the ‘boundaries’ explained above, the obvious issue is the ensuing debate in respect of what such boundaries are and who is to decide them. And such boundaries will keep on shifting over the course of time.
So it is natural to expect these tussles to continue, and an appropriate way to resolve such disputes would be to have a robust system of redressal or arbitration. One could reduce, though not eliminate, such instances by having adequate representation on the Board, of people belonging to the artistic fraternity, and representation of people from all walks of life including child and women welfare body.
Once it is clear that a film does not breach the boundaries set, one does have to deal with the audience appropriate certification for the film. There is some case to be made as to whether one needs to move beyond the current U, U/A and A classes of certification. Lets looks at a few countries:
Singapore: G; PG; NC16; M18; R18; R21
Japan: G; PG12; R15+; R18+
UK: Uc; U; PG; 12A; 12; 15; 18; R18
US: Self-policing through MPAA – G; PG; PG13; R; NC-17.
As one can see from the above, there is a good argument as to why India can have a higher number of levels of certifications. What also helps is, as in the case of the UK, that the certification category is explained in detail in respect of what it connotes. I prefer the US system, which provides additional details beyond the rating, in terms of categorisation of language, nudity, sexual situations, violence and drug abuse in the film, which allows the viewer to make an appropriate
Again, even in the certification process, there can be room for interpretation, and a robust mechanism has to be established for the applicant to ‘seek’ a particular level of certification, and for the Board to agree, and in case of disagreement provide its own recommended status, and alternatives for amends to the scenes to reach the status sought by the applicant.
It is here that one needs to step back and consider the overall environment that is evolving for content consumption, even in respect of films that can now be viewed on mediums and through channels other than the big screen. Though the Information Technology Act, 2000 provides for penalties in respect of allowing transmission of ‘inappropriate’ content in electronic form, it still does not regulate the viewer, since that cannot get policed. So when one is considering certification standards one needs to be mindful of the evolving environment of access to content.
However, I do believe that where control can be exercised through regulations, for rightful purposes, such endeavour should not be abandoned merely due to potential slippages through other forum. The Legislature does bear a greater responsibility for ensuring promotion of civil betterment and liberties (even if private citizens choose to function otherwise).
But such an endeavour cannot be devoid of recognition and realisation of the realities and the contours of such realities / appropriateness, and that standards of civil betterment and liberties do change over a period a time. It would not be a bad idea to put in a mechanism for periodic review (say once every five years) of the certification categories, standards and other processes associated with it.
Also, how such certification should operate for content shown on other mediums should also evolve over a period of time whether on satellite channels (presently existing to some degree), DVDs (rated based on cinematic releases, but there could be provision for versioned release for DVDs), over the internet (difficult to implement).
All said and done, this is an evolving process and will, due to the inherent nature of the matter, be subject to pulls and pushes from the legislature, the existing governing dispensation, the civil society and the private citizen. It would hence be worthwhile to have a process that accommodates such pulls and pushes.