Film censorship in India came into effect to examine if a film was 'suitable for public exhibition' with the Cinematograph Act of 1918. In the century since, the industry's frustration with the inconsistency and the arbitrariness of the CBFC's (Central Board of Film Certification) decisions has meant that this relationship has been fragile and fraught. On 4 April, the Central Government dealt a serious blow to Indian cinema by abolishing the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT).
The FCAT came into being in 1983 after the CBFC gave director, screenwriter, and journalist KA Abbas' documentary Char Shahar Ek Kahani an 'A' certificate. The revising committee upheld the certification. Abbas took his petition to the Supreme Court, and though he lost the case, the FCAT was instituted. Headed by a retired high court judge, this was a five-member quasi-judicial body that reviewed the decisions of the CBFC's examining and revising committees.
In February, Minister of State for Finance Anurag Singh Thakur introduced The Tribunals Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Bill 2021 that looked to 'streamline tribunals' by abolishing 'certain tribunals and authorities, and to provide a mechanism for filing appeal directly to the commercial court or the High Court'. Since the bill could not get the Parliamentary nod, an ordinance was issued on 4 April that scrapped eight appellate tribunals, including FCAT.
Now that the Tribunal has been dissolved, producers and directors have no choice but to approach the High Court. "Everyone knows how overburdened the judiciary in India is, and this will just add to it unnecessarily. Not everyone has the wherewithal or even the patience to go to court," says director Hansal Mehta while giving the example of Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab that bypassed the FCAT after the CBFC's revising committee asked the filmmaker to remove all references to Punjab and make 89 cuts. "That film had powerful backers like Balaji Telefilms, Phantom (Films), and Reliance Entertainment. They could afford to hire lawyers and fight it out in court. Not everyone can do that," Mehta adds.
This sudden termination of the statutory body by the government has taken the industry, which has been reeling from COVID-19-related losses and the increasingly restrictive atmosphere, by surprise. "Whom did they even consult about this?" asks a filmmaker, who requested to not be quoted. "I have been in touch with the industry guilds and other directors, and no one knew about this. No film can release without a censor certificate, and this move has effectively removed our option for redressal. In the past, the FCAT was a quick and cheap option where you could have the decisions of the examining and revising committees of the Board reversed like in the case of Alankrita Srivastava's Lipstick Under My Burkha. If that film was released now, they'd have to go to court, and everyone knows how expensive and time consuming that can be," adds the director.
In 2017, the CBFC had refused to certify Srivastava's sophomore film because 'there are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography, and a bit sensitive touch about no particular section of society'. Looking back, Srivastava is "glad that there was an FCAT because we could work towards resolving the certification issue." "It was a time consuming and expensive affair even then. We had applied for certification in December, and got it only in June. Also, we had to travel to Delhi to present our case and hire lawyers.
But at least, the FCAT was a dedicated body to solve filmmaker's problems. As a filmmaker, you felt heard.
With the High Court coming into the picture, we'll have to wait and see how quick they are in scheduling these cases," says Srivastava.
This move is also being seen as the government adding another layer of restrictions to deter filmmakers from telling stories that challenge the status quo. "Producers aren't going to back stories that seem even vaguely risky because apart from being expensive, going to courts would also mean delays in release and no one wants that. More than the bigger producers, this would hurt the indie filmmakers. They anyway have such a tough time getting their films made, and now certifications will also become an issue. These are the voices who tell different stories that reflect their views on society and politics, and that's what we'd be losing," says a producer, who has backed many indie films through his career and asked to not be quoted for this article.
For decades now, filmmakers have been demanding reforms to The Cinematograph Art and Cinematograph Rules, under which the CBFC functions, that date back to 1952 and 1983 respectively. There was a move made during the first term of the Narendra Modi-led Bhartiya Janata Party Government, when the Information & Broadcasting Ministry under Arun Jaitley set up a committee under the stewardship of Shyam Benegal to revamp the CBFC in January 2016. The committee's recommendations " that the CBFC should only be certifying films for age-appropriate viewing " was similar to ones made by the 2013 committee chaired by Justice Mukul Mudgal.
While there were noises made at the time about the law being updated, nothing has happened on that front. "For years, I have believed that the CBFC should just certify, and not censor. That's what the relevant 'C' in CBFC stands for," says Atul Kasbekar, photographer and producer of films like Neerja and Tumhari Sulu. The abolition of FCAT will force producers to either alter their films to the whims and fancies of the Board or seek legal recourse. "Going to court will further complicate timelines and delay matters," he adds.
While it is probably too early to hear from film guilds or even the larger producers and studio heads, if the last few years have been any indication, Bollywood has shown little or no willingness to stand up to the bullies. When you give in to the bullies, be prepared for a future on their terms; prepare to tell their stories; prepare for all-out censorship.