I served the Central Board of Film Certification for ten years, between 2005 and 2015. I was a part of the CBFC’s examining committee, and later a board member. The examining committee represents the first layer of certification. Then there is the revising committee and, before it was disbanded, the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal.

We used to have about a hundred-odd examiners at the Mumbai office (the CBFC has centres in other cities too). Many of the examining committee members were political appointees. They were mostly from the Congress party at the time, and were gradually replaced by Bharatiya Janata Party supporters after Narendra Modi came to power. Sharmila Tagore and later Leela Samson were the chairpersons. By the time I left the CBFC, Pahlaj Nihalani had come in. You could already see the changing contours of censorship.

When I was with the CBFC, it was a far more liberal time. At least I never faced any pressure from the outside or from above. Even the CBFC regional officers and the revising committee members who were also government officials were rather liberal.

Why do we need a super-censor?

The Union government’s proposal to amend the Cinematograph Act and re-certify a film that has already been censored is a very sad turn of events. What is happening at the moment is an Emergency in the garb of a democracy. You are denying filmmakers their rights and their creativity.

Many of the reasons the government is citing for its proposed policy change – to prevent films that promote moral indecency or public disorder or disturb friendly relations with foreign states – already exist as per Section 5B (1) (principles for guidance in certifying films) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952. So why then do you need to tinker with the Cinematograph Act?

For instance, in my time, we had refused certification to a couple of Punjabi-language films that justified the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi. The producers appealed to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal and got the films passed, but they weren’t released eventually after the Punjab government said that they would create a law and order problem.

One of the big controversies during my time was around the film MSG: The Messenger, about the godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. In June 2014, the film was refused certification by the examining and revising committees on the ground that it promoted superstition and projected the godman as a miracle worker. By then, we had a new government at the Centre. The appellate tribunal passed the film, leading to the resignation of chairperson Leela Samson and other members of the board.

Pahlaj Nihalani, who replaced Samson, was on an altogether different trip. He was interfering, and would attend screenings even when he wasn’t supposed to.

The end of debate?

The most pressure we faced were from producers, who wouldn’t agree with some of the suggested cuts or would refuse to take A or UA certificates for their films. Some of them would apply for fresh certification with the revising committee, and if that didn’t work, they would approach the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal.

There used to be heated debates and discussions, but the majority view would prevail. I remember a few instances, such as when Shah Rukh Khan pleaded against a UA certificate for his production Ra.One. He said, I will die but I won’t take a UA certificate. He eventually agreed to a U certificate with a few cuts. Such healthy exchanges were the norm. Dissent was expressed and tolerated and compromise was worked out in an amicable way.

Personally for me, the process of certification was a novel experience. I watched films across languages, as well as English and foreign productions. I realised quickly that you had to apply context to the process – what worked in an English film didn’t work for Hindi, for instance.

Self-regulation over government certification

There is an argument that the censor board should be scrapped. I have also been a member of the Advertising Standards Council of India, which is a self-regulatory and non-governmental body. The difference between ASCI and the censor board is that in the case of advertising, the content has already been released. If somebody complains against an advertisement or a commercial afterwards, it can be looked into. In the case of films, they need to be cleared even before they are released.

There is a case to be made for a self-regulatory body for the film industry, made up by enlightened filmmakers who can keep a tab on things and decide for themselves. This is how it works with the television industry in any case.

You can’t have this level of interference from the very top. I am surprised at the deafening silence of many of the industry’s leading lights. Of course, there are honourable exceptions. Does the government want to turn audiences into flocks of sheep? We will only be left with silly comedies at this rate, rather than serious films examining the social and political issues of the day. Films like Rang De Basanti would never have been passed today.

In the past, you could go to the appellate tribunal, but now the government has even broken up that up. What is the poor producer to do? Approach the courts? It will be a waste of time and money. This is intervention – the government is saying, we will come to you. The tribunal has been replaced by the government and party.

(Nandini Sardesai is the former head of department of Sociology at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.)

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