There is no reasonable explanation for the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s proposal to tinker with the Cinematograph Act to create what some have described as a “super censor”. The ministry’s attempt to override the powers of the Central Board of Film Certification and re-certify a movie that has already been certified has only one implication: censorship from on high.
The “revisionary powers” that the Union government seeks are aimed at strengthening the already stringent Section 5B (1) (principles for guidance in certifying films) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952. It 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 3 [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.”
The ministry’s proposal, not coincidentally, follows the scrapping in April of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, which gave filmmakers an extra layer of appeal within the Central Board of Film Certification without having to go to the courts.
With this decision, the film certification body, which is headed by advertising executive and lyricist Prasoon Joshi, was already operating with a reduced mandate. The ministry’s plan targets not only filmmakers but also the CBFC’s own authority and autonomy.
The increased scrutiny of creative expression comes even as India continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic and a ravaged economy. It follows the tightening of the screws on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Filmmakers who assumed that they could express themselves with fewer encumbrances in web series and direct-to-streamer movies were in for a rude shock in February, when these platforms were brought under the purview of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.
Directors, writers and technicians have bravely signed statements offering counter-proposals to the ministry. They have pointed out that the proposed changes will “render filmmakers powerless at the hands of the state as more vulnerable to threats, vandalism and intimidation of mob censors”. They have also demanded the reinstatement of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal.
As it is, even after a movie has been cleared for viewing, creators continue to face challenges from supra-censors: they must battle public protests by parties claiming to be offended by the content, litigations and trolling on social media platforms. Even some liberals support the idea that a work of fiction or non-fiction must satisfy everybody without offending anybody and must be allowed to emerge only after being put through a filtering process.
The ministry’s proposal furthers officialdom’s suspicion that every film or web series or documentary carries within it the potential for subversion, offence and damage to the national fabric. Not content with restricting the freedom of expression through the process of certification, the government now wants to have the final word on what is permitted and what isn’t.
Once the Covid-19 pandemic has worn itself out, we may well move into a world without masks. But the muzzles are here to stay.