Many filmmakers in Mumbai get their films cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification by paying hefty commissions to agents. However, none of these middlemen actually have official authorisation.

On Thursday, the Central Board of Film Certification – popularly known as the censor board – found itself in the midst of a corruption scandal when the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested one such certification agent, Shripati Mishra, for allegedly demanding a bribe of Rs 70,000 to get a regional film from Madhya Pradesh cleared. Mishra was arrested along with a member of the CBFC’s Mumbai advisory panel. But the controversy escalated when the Board’s chief executive officer, Rakesh Kumar, was himself booked for allegedly asking for the bribe through the agent.

Most news reports described the middleman as an authorised or certified agent who was serving as facilitator between the film producer and the censor board, but according to filmmakers as well as a senior member of the board, such agents have no authorisation at all.

Attempts at transparency

“These agents are not certified by anybody and are not supposed to have any role in the process of acquiring a censor certificate,” said Leela Samson, chairperson of the CBFC, who claims that the board has been working for several years to introduce transparency into the process of applying for certification clearances by moving it online. “But producers are often not willing to take to the new system and push for out-of-turn requests through agents,” said Samson.

Films in India cannot be screened in public or on television without a certificate from the CBFC stating whether they are appropriate for general audiences or should be restricted to viewers of a certain age. To apply for the certificate, producers have to submit their film, along with the script, title credits and other documents to the board.

The fee for getting a Hindi or English feature film certified could range from Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000, depending on the length of the film. Regional language films pay lower fees. If a film does not require many edits or changes, it could get cleared within two or three months of application.

Most producers, however, find it convenient to get the process handled by agents, who manage everything from preparing the final edit of the script and filling out the forms, to getting a date allotted for the censor board committee to view the film. The agent arrested by the CBI on Thursday was trying to get the board to hasten the process of certification so that the producer could have his film ready for release on August 15.

“On an average, agents in Mumbai charge Rs 50,000 for Marathi films and up to Rs 15 or Rs 20 lakh for Hindi films,” said a Marathi film producer who did not wish to be named. “They know people at the censor board committees and can negotiate with them on edits and ratings. They get work done, and no one wants the headache of going and talking to the board people.”

The producer claims there are at least 15 or 20 such agents in Mumbai, but is not really sure what their backgrounds are. “The agent I used to go to was an assistant director on some films,” he said.

Rooting out corruption

According to filmmaker Ananth Mahadevan, certification agents may not be authorised, but they are not illegal either. “They are not necessarily touts, but they act as facilitators,” said Mahadevan. “They have been around for a long time, and one can’t say for sure that there would be no instances of corruption in the censor board if the agents were to go.”

Samson believes one of the reasons the board finds it difficult to check corruption is that the members of the CBFC’s advisory panels – which issue the certificates – are usually appointed by local political leaders.

“We have been saying for a long time that panel members should be selected by us, so that we can appoint people who are artistic, interested in films and have a strong sense of editing,” said Samson. “But avarice has taken over everybody’s sense of judgment, and people want a system with agents.”