Certification in India – A Tight-Rope Walk By Leela Samson

Conceptually, the Central Board of Film Certification of India is envisioned as an autonomous body that comprises of a group of professionals from different walks of life—allied and related to cinema—who are brought together to make the policies that the CBFC then implements. While the constitutional status of CBFC is that of a subordinate office under the administrative control of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, the functioning and the decision making regarding film certification must be independent of any Government or non-governmental influence. It is the bounden duty of the Chairperson and the Board to ensure that this independence of the CBFC is not only maintained, but is also perceived as being maintained for the body is under the constant scrutiny of local and international media and any perceived interference in the working of the Board is detrimental to the image of the Government.

To achieve greater transparency and more objectivity in the working of CBFC, it is crucial that the Board Members, Advisory Panel Members and the officers of the Board are selected with utmost care. Greater representation of the film industry on the Board will enable a form of self-governance that will go a long way to minimize the confrontation between the two that had for long been the nature of their interaction. However, it is not just industry insiders who must come on the Board. Educated, professionals of integrity with backgrounds in film, media, culture, the arts, science, journalism, law, social work, literature and education are also important. I believe that the CBFC has had wonderful people of this nature on its Boards since inception and that is why films of every nature have flourished in the country. We had such individuals on the Board in my time as Chairperson as well, who took their appointment seriously and attempted to make a difference to film culture and the institutional processes that oversee one of the most powerful mediums of modernity.

However, the day-to-day functioning of the CBFC is handled not by Board members but by CBFC officials in every region and hundreds of Panel members – those who actually view and grade films. It is here that the choice of the panel members and officials – their background and experience is of utmost importance. This listing cannot be compromised. These persons simply cannot be appointed because they are political party workers. According to the rules of certification two-thirds of the members of the Advisory Panel can be recommended by the Chairperson and the Board of CBFC. We repeatedly asked the Ministry to take our recommendations seriously so that we could have more cinema-savvy and informed people who view and certify films. Every time we were indulged and asked to send in “good” names. Of course, none of these figured on the final lists made by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

The CBFC certifies Hollywood films, too, and it is often a challenge to get panel members who know the language enough to suggest cuts or advise ratings. The media has in the recent past highlighted the incompetence of these Panel members in judging films. The Chairperson is more often than not, in an embarrassing situation when having to justify the rating made by a panel. Most people believe that the Chairperson of the CBFC sees every film brought out in every language across the country—all 1,500 of them a year! In fact, the Chairperson and the Board get to know the rating given to a film only when the CEO of the CBFC advises the Chairperson of a problem or when the press or an affected party bare their grievance to the media. Else it is not a process the Chair or Board members are involved in. It is true to say that several Boards, and certainly the one I had the pleasure to lead were committed to streamlining and updating the processes of film certification allowing for an openness and freedom of expression while remaining extremely sensitive to crucial issues and concerns relating to social and gender inequities and injustices, community sensitivities, as well as national security concerns.

It is only when an aggrieved Director applies for a Review of his film, which is the second stage of the certification process that the Chairperson is informed and he or she looks into a fresh panel that is now headed by a member of the Board or in some cases, the Chairperson himself or herself. It is critical then, that the Advisory Panel members have an exposure to films, the arts, political forces at play, different religious beliefs, social and institutional processes and are able to understand and respond to the issues that cinema raises. It is in this sense that sensitivity to social, cultural and artistic issues and a sense of responsibility to the task at hand is absolutely crucial for the Panel members. Their selection is, therefore, an onerous task, and honest, intelligent and aware members should be appointed to the Advisory Panels. It is also important that Advisory Panel members understand the nature of their appointment, and do not inflate their own importance or see their role in a self-aggrandizing manner—printing visiting cards with this appointment or demanding favors from the film industry in exchange for their role in certification.

Other recommendations made to the Government and which ought to be high on the agenda of the CBFC is holding orientation and cinema-education workshops for new advisory panel members, not allowing the Panel members to continue for more than two consecutive terms, introduction of a “mature” slot or a water-shed hour on satellite television for adult content cinema, a voluntary by-line by the Producer to the certification describing the film and other such progressive measures, and most of all, emphasizing the need to amend the existing Cinematograph Act of 1952, which would introduce one or two more certification categories like UA-15.

Funding—that is the starting point of most discussions in the country today—is not the problem.  “Approximately an amount of one crore can be earmarked for this project in the current financial year since top most priority has to be given to this project and executed on a turnkey basis at the earliest” said the Additional Secretary of the Ministry of I & B at a meeting held on September 5, 2014 in his chambers, attended by the Chairperson, CEO and Regional Officers of the CBFC. (Editor’s Note: one crore is ₹10 million, or $167,000 based on the currency exchange rate of $500,000 based on purchasing power parity)A new CEO In-Charge had been appointed who wished to tke up pending matters on a war-footing.  “We have to speed up our certification process and we have to project ourselves as a transparent and user friendly organisation.  The existing website should be redesigned and upgraded and ensure that the applicant (producer) need not make several rounds to the CBFC office”.

As Chairperson, I spoke specifically about the nature and appearance of the certificate issued by CBFC—that it had not been upgraded, nor redesigned in 100 years, that this was a visual art form requiring a more attractive image and perhaps using an animated version for display at theatres which would display the grading in a way that would cut across language barriers, that the latest technology needed to be incorporated in it, that the logo of the CBFC still indicates that a cut film is being shown and this logo has to be redesigned to suit the remodified role of CBFC i.e., certification of film and not censoring of film, and that the CBFC hologram had to be designed and inbuilt in the certificate issued by CBFC to avoid duplication and maintain authenticity.  The Regional offices needed to be provided with Digital Projection Systems and all Regional Offices should have their own preview theatres.  After 100 years of Indian cinema the CBFC still does not have a designated building that represents the work of certification, with proper reception and conference rooms, or viewing facilities.  The present system of going out to the producers’ chosen location for previewing a movie has to be discontinued, besides saving precious man hours in travelling through a metropolis like Mumbai!

To this suggestion it was decided that whichever region has space which can be reallocated for a digital theatre shall procure a digital projection system and start functioning within their existing space immediately.  The fact is, that no regional office has that kind of space. In case of regions where enough space for accommodating digital preview theatres is not available, Regional Officers were asked to identify suitable locations as early as possible. This last, is a way of brushing a difficult issue under the carpet and moving on. The arts simply do not count. That is the truth. Bureaucrats and politicians simply reflect the people’s insensitivity to their own creative processes.

The profile of the CBFC from an earlier conception of a “censoring” agency to one that primarily does classification of films as per the Cinematograph Act, 1952 is paramount in today’s India.  There must be a regular exchange of ideas and open dialogue with the stakeholders to ensure that the trust deficit that had been built up over the years is regularly addressed. We made a commitment to the stakeholders that the Board would make a genuine attempt to ensure that the certification process was transparent, efficient and in tune with contemporary global standards, so that our film content is at par with developments and standards all over the world.

Initiating debate on the significance of cinema, its signifying procedures and narrative structures, and the communicative power of this extremely powerful medium that needs careful handling became one of our Board’s priorities. To that end, some of our members who taught cinema and related subjects in colleges and universities in India and abroad were entrusted with the responsibility of developing training and refresher modules for panel members across the different language regions in India. Panel members attended these modules in large numbers, so did filmmakers. The interactive sessions called Samvaads that CBFC had been holding for three years across India had become immensely popular among the audience, the filmmakers, the trade bodies and chambers as well as with other stakeholders like the Animal Welfare Board of India, NGOs dealing with women’s and children’s issues, and other organizations.

However, in the Centenary year of Indian cinema our dream that the new Cinematograph Bill 2010 would be enacted by the Government as a gift to the nation and to the film industry that has contributed to the Indian image in the international arena, besides raking in millions in foreign exchange earnings, lay shattered for want of resolve by the Government. What a missed opportunity! The new Act, when enacted will give more teeth to the CBFC. At the moment, while it is laid down legally that the CBFC certificate is binding and must be upheld, any state government can challenge the certificate and take decisions that go against the certification and set the entire process to naught. The Mudgal Committee has made its recommendations in this regard and we had hoped that individual States banning or delaying the exhibition of certified films would become history.

The cause of the documentary filmmaker who does not have the financial ability of the mainstream film-maker and yet passionately commits to exploring critical social issues despite lack of distribution and exhibition facilities was extremely dear to me. I believed that there should be a different payment structure for documentary films, which would make it easier for them to continue making films that address significant social, cultural and political issues.

In a meeting with the film industry, it was considered fruitful to set up a Joint Committee with representatives of the film industry to frame the guidelines for the late-night slot on television. It was believed then that the framework formulated by this joint committee would serve to inform decisions on films which qualify for that slot, that this would be a mature step for the certification process and that a lot of filmmakers would begin to accept this as a step forward. In time, this slot would become an accepted norm, and even the broadcasters would begin to see this as a boon. Most significantly, this would enable that television content could cater to mature audiences at a suitable time.

Freedom of expression is a basic right. The people of India will decide what they will accept and what they will not, and when. It is the responsibility of the State Governments to ensure law and order. There are small groups, churned up by political activists who create trouble with an issue to raise objection and use it as a tool to project themselves. There is an audience for every kind of cinema and it is the right of the people to watch it.

In the ultimate analysis, if films must be certified in a free society, a process that filmmakers endorse for technical reasons, it is best that the Government in power disassociates itself completely from the process of certification.

Leela Samson is a distinguished Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer, instructor and writer. She is known for her technical virtuosity and has taught Bharatanatyam at Shriram Bhartiya Kala Kendra in Delhi for many years.  She is a former Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, formerly the Central Board of Film Censors.  Ms. Samson was a member of the Committee of Experts to Examine Issues Of Certification Under the Cinematograph At, 1952, (the “Mugdal Committee”).


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