The new Cinematograph Act proposed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has opened up discourse and dialogue amongst industry experts regarding the autonomy of the media and its censorship by the government— the amendments propose changes that threaten to take away the autonomy of the CBFC and filmmakers. Censorship in India has always been a hot topic, with critics claiming that it is a heckler of media content, especially as the years progress.
The proposed changes were notified a month ago, when the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a notification seeking amendments in the existing Cinematograph Act of 1952. The changes allegedly will give the Union government more power over film certifications, essentially taking away the autonomy of the CBFC.
Many filmmakers and industry experts, including Kamal Haasan, Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Vetri Maaran, Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi, Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, and Dibakar Banerjee have already spoken up against the amendments. Filmmakers have proposed a statement against the amendment, with the petition garnering more than 1400 votes from filmmakers around the country.
Prashant Umrao, a standing counsel in the Supreme Court of India, called the act, “another blow to the film fraternity.”
In another blow to the film fraternity, Ministry of I & B has proposed new amendments to the Cinematograph Act under which the Central Government would have the power to revoke or recall certification of films that have already been cleared by the Censor Board.— Prashant Umrao (@ippatel) June 28, 2021
However, when discussed in the parliamentary hearing, the Ministry of I&B claimed that the bill had been misunderstood. “They [central officials] claimed that the bill has been misunderstood and that the ministry itself will have no powers to censor any film,” an unidentified member of the parliamentary committee told the media. “The bill only allows the ministry to return the film for re-certification.”
What is the Cinematograph Act of 1952?
The Cinematograph Act of 1952 puts into place a rigorous method of certifying films for public consumption- commercial films displayed in cinema halls and other public viewings. It is also responsible for the existence of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The Union government has certain guidelines in place that determine the certifications and edits or cuts given by the CBFC. There are four categories of classification— 1.) unrestricted viewing (U); 2.) unrestricted, but with parental guidance for children below the age of 12 (U/A); 3) restricted to adults (A); and 4.) restricted to a class or a profession (S).
CBFC has nine regional offices that view, classify and recommend modifications and cuts to the movies before their release. They are assisted by an advisory panel elected by the Union government.
CBFC is very thorough with its classification and review method. It is a three-step procedure that weighs in all disagreements as well as expert opinions. A regional member of CBFC reviews the film while being assisted by a member/members of the government-appointed advisory panel to determine the classifications and the revisions. In case of disagreements between the regional office and the advisory panel, the issue is taken up by a revising committee of the CBFC. If the issue is still not resolved, it is taken up further by another revising committee or a chairperson of the board.
What are the proposed amendments?
The proposed amendments ask for three things;
1.) The category U/A will be subdivided based on age into U/A 7+, U/A 13+ and U/A 16+.
2.) Empowering the Union government to direct the CBFC to reconsider the certificate it has issued to a film if the government feels that it does not conform to the ‘Guiding Principles’ under Section 5B(1). Under the section, CBFC cannot certify media content that goes against the “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of the State, 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”.
3.) The government has also recommended adding Section 6AA targeting piracy. Accepting the judgements of the standing committee, they have agreed upon a minimum punishment of 3 months which can be extended up to 3 years. The government also suggested a fine of 3 lakhs but removed the 10 lakh cap. It may now be extended till 5% of the audited gross production cost or with both.
Thus, in conclusion, the Union government is seeking to have complete control over India’s media content and its censorship despite the CDFC already having various safeguards in place. Further, the government demanded a decision be made in 14 days, not providing ample time to deliberate on an issue as important as media censorship.
Why is this an issue?
The proposed amendment does nothing except take away the autonomous power of the CDFC and empower the union government for further certification. Curiously enough, the amendment proposition goes against a Supreme Court decision in 2000 that reduced the Union government‘s power in media censorship, wherein the court ruled that the government cannot weigh in on cases which have already been reviewed and classified by the CBFC.
Furthermore, the Union government already has considerable power over the CBFC. All CBFC members, members of the advisory panel, and regional officers are appointed by the Union government. Further, the guidelines by which the CBFC certifies and reviews films are established by the Union government. The government also has the power to suspend, change or revoke a certificate under Section 5E and Section 6(2). The new amendment only strengthens these powers, allowing the government to revoke or suspend the certificate of movies on something as ambiguous as even “public decency”, “national security and/or public order” and other things. It allows the government to have veto power over what media is acceptable for public consumption without providing reason or accountability.
India’s track record with press and media freedom is shoddy at best. In 2021, the Freedom in the World report by Freedom House gave India a Civil Liberties Rating of 33/60. India got a 2/4 on every subcategory— on ‘free and independent India’, on 'individual's freedom to practice and express their religious faith or non-belief in public and private', and a on 'academic freedom, and the educational system's freedom from extensive political indoctrination. In 2021, the World Press Freedom Index ranked India at 142nd out of 180 countries— a drop from India’s 2017 ranking of 133rd.
The CBFC is a much stricter body of operation as well, as compared to the certification boards of contemporaries. In comparison, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)’s officers merely reviews and classifies films into the appropriate age recommendation or recommends changes to the age category the filmmaker had originally put their film in. Similarly, in the United States, the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) which is a group of parents, decide which movies are appropriate for children to watch. The CBFC not only classifies films into categories, but it also suggests revisions and excisions from the media content based on government-issued guidelines.