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Closed Chapter, Open Rule Book

And so the curtain has come down on what was a pretty action-packed chairmanship of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) by Mr Pahlaj Nihalani.

Reams of newsprint and television broadcast headlines were dominated by the CBFC’s decisions under the erstwhile leadership and the body found itself in the spotlight even more often than the very high-profile industry it was supposed to regulate. That, without even getting into the merits or otherwise of contentious diktats emerging from that office, by itself indicates that something was obviously going wrong somewhere.

As a publication, we often weighed in with our opinion or comments on the frequent spats between the censors and those censored. This, however, is neither the time nor the place for name-calling, recriminations or gloating.

Instead, this is a time to look towards the future and extend a hearty welcome to the new chairperson, Mr Prasoon Joshi, as also the new appointees to the CBFC board which include some highly accomplished and respected figures from our fraternity like Ms Vidya Balan, Mr T S Nagabharana and Ms Gautami Tadimalla. Here’s wishing the incoming leadership the very best of luck as they assume their new responsibilities and we hope that the first task that they undertake will be to reverse the climate of adversity and distrust that has prevailed between the censors and filmmakers for some time now.

If the body of work that many of these luminaries have been part of is anything to go by, the industry can look forward to a far more progressive and filmmaker-friendly dispensation from those charged with certifying our films. However, much as we hate to sound like party-poopers, we have to point out that as often seen in the past – including during the reign of the most recent leadership – the previous repertoire of functionaries is not necessarily indicative of the sensibilities enforced once in a position of power.

To be fair, sometimes this flip-flop is not even voluntary but compelled by the outdated guidelines that govern the CBFC and its members. And so, while wholeheartedly welcoming the government’s decision to effect a leadership change, we must also acknowledge with some concern that a different set of personnel by itself doesn’t necessarily eradicate the circumstances that made previous excesses and arbitrariness possible.

Similarly, even as we take heart from the undisputable bona fides of many in the incoming team and express our gratitude to the powers-that-be for the same, we are also mindful of the fact that intent is one thing and execution quite another. Rewind to January 2016 when the government appointed a committee to suggest recommendations for overhauling film censorship in India. With the redoubtable Mr Shyam Benegal as Chairman and such worthies such as Mr Kamal Haasan, Mr Goutam Ghose, Mr Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Mr Piyush Pandey and others constituting the committee, we couldn’t have asked for more impeccable credentials.

However, it has been more than a year since the committee submitted its report and there is still no word on when, and in what shape, their recommendations will be implemented.

Even if all the recommendations were to be implemented in their entirety, there would still remain some grey areas which could hamper the effectiveness of the newly appointed leadership at the CBFC.

As pointed out in an earlier editorial (Great Recommendations, But… issue dated June 13, 2016), while by-and-large very pertinent and much welcome indeed, the recommendations of the Shyam Benegal committee don’t plug all loopholes or clear all ambiguity. Crucially, the report leaves open the door for films to be denied certification if their content is deemed to contravene the provisions of Section 5B (1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952.

The said Section 5B (1) states: ‘A film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, 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.’

Many of the provisos cited above – particularly the concepts of ‘decency’ and ‘morality’ – are so broad and subjective that pretty much anything can be labelled as offensive by someone or the other. Indeed, many 24X7 news channels – not to mention social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook – often seem to exist and thrive primarily due to the unending barrage of outrage from an easily offended nation!

It is imperative that all these ambiguities and uncertainties are addressed. And the simplest and most effective way to do this is to remove any and all grounds on which certification can be withheld. It is also critical that the progressive recommendations of the Shyam Benegal committee are implemented expeditiously and without dilution.

It is only by so doing that the government shall truly empower the very eminent and capable Mr Joshi, Ms Balan and their colleagues to effectively perform their duties and conclusively quell any cynicism there may be about its stated intent to foster creative freedom.

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