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100 years of film censorship in India

A full century after the Cinematograph Act of 1918, cinema and censorship still share a close, uncomfortable relationship

A still from ‘A Throw Of Dice’.
A still from ‘A Throw Of Dice’.

Film censorship was born of fire. Early film stock had a compound called nitrocellulose, which was used in explosives as guncotton. Mixed with camphor, it became nitrate film—not explosive, but still violently flammable. In 1897, a year and a half after the first ever film screening, a nitrate fire at the Bazar de la Charité in Paris killed 126 people. A spate of similar incidents over the next decade resulted in the world’s first cinematograph legislation being passed in Britain in 1909, to improve safety standards by controlling the issue of cinema licences.

One kind of control led to another. Since the 1909 Act made licences necessary for public screenings, local authorities used this to regulate not just the conditions in which the film would be screened but also the contents of the film itself. After a few confusing years with everyone making up their own rules, the British Board of Film Censors was formed in 1912.

By this time, Indians were not only watching films but also making their own. After dozens of home-grown newsreels and shorts, the first full-length feature, D.G. Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, released in 1913. In 1917, a Bill introduced in the imperial legislative council noted the “rapid growth in the popularity of cinematograph and increasing number of such exhibitions in India". It recommended the creation of a law that would ensure both safety and the “protection of the public from indecent or otherwise objectionable representations". Thus was born the Cinematograph Act of 1918, and, with it, film censorship in India.

An article in the March 1940 issue of ‘Filmindia’.
An article in the March 1940 issue of ‘Filmindia’.

A suitable film

The 1918 Act gave the district magistrate (or, in Rangoon, the commissioner of police) the power to issue licences to exhibitors, and the government to appoint inspectors to examine and certify films as “suitable for public exhibition". It did not, however, mention what the inspectors were to look out for. What a suitable film was—or, at least, what it wasn’t—began to become clearer in 1920, when censor boards were set up in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Rangoon (a fifth was established in Lahore in 1927). To judge the appropriateness of films, both local and foreign, for release, these boards adopted a set of rules.

“No generally and rigidly applicable rules of censorship can be laid down." The general principles of the Bombay Board of Film Censors began with these encouraging words, then proceeded to lay out 43 objectionable subjects (most of them taken verbatim from a famous list compiled by politician T.P. O’Connor for the British censors in 1917). Rules 21 and 22 were key: “Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule" and “Subjects dealing with India, in which British or Indian officers are seen in an odious light". Film-makers were also advised to steer clear of “Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes", “Unnecessary exhibition of feminine underclothing" and “Indecorous dancing". No.40—“Confinements"—must have struck Indian directors as grimly ironic; 1920 was the start of the non-cooperation movement, and jails all over the subcontinent were full.

With one eye on the freedom movement, another on the barrage of Axis propaganda, the British government in India ordered a cinematic fact-finding mission. The Indian cinematograph committee (ICC) of 1927-28, chaired by a former Madras high court judge, T. Rangachariar, was the first comprehensive inquiry into movie viewing, censoring and exhibiting habits in the country, and an acknowledgment by the British of cinema’s increasing popularity in India. In 1921, there were an estimated 148 movie halls in India; by 1927, this number had doubled. Despite Hollywood films accounting for roughly 80% of the shows in those early years, it was the Indian titles which really got the public going. In its report, the committee said: “The crowds which flock to witness a popular Indian film (and many of them are popular) are really remarkable."

An advertisement for ‘Kismet’.
An advertisement for ‘Kismet’.

The ICC’s sensible suggestions—setting up a central board of censors, a system of appeals, classifying titles as U and A—were not put into practice, a fate which would befall other painstakingly compiled reports on Indian cinema in the years to come. Still, the report and its attendant documents are a fascinating snapshot of Indian movie-going in the 1920s, with interviewees ranging from Phalke to Lala Lajpat Rai (didn’t like Charlie Chaplin) and M.K. Gandhi (didn’t like cinema). The responses testify to the hold cinema had over viewers in this country—that unique ability to transport, to transfix and to linger on—even before the introduction, in 1931, of sound, and with it, the signature genre of Indian cinema: the musical. “The Picture House possesses all the attractions of real life," a Lucknow judge, Bhagwat Prasad, wrote to the ICC. “We find ourselves in the midst of people in the screen and become interested in them. Our tears for their sorrows and our delight at the successes are immediately called forth. The effect which is produced in our minds is instantaneous and it is not soon effaced."

No politics, please

Despite the long list of objectionable subjects, Indian cinema wasn’t exactly prurient in the 1920s and 1930s. Hamarun Hindustan (1930) had an intimate scene with Sulochana and Jal Merchant. Film-maker J.B.H. Wadia recalled, years after the fact, Lalita Pawar kissing her co-star “without inhibition" in a film, and Jal Merchant and Zubeida “kissing each other quite often" in 1932’s Zarina (depending on which account you read, Zarina had a total of 34, 48 or 82 kisses). Actors kiss in the Franz Osten-directed Shiraz (1928) and A Throw Of Dice (1929). And there’s the famous kiss in Karma (1933), which has gone down in legend as being 4 minutes long, though it lasts only a minute and involves a snake and a tearful Devika Rani trying to bring a comatose Himanshu Rai to life.

The British had bigger problems than a few onscreen kisses. “The main preoccupation of the British censor was not the passionate love scenes then common in Indian cinema but the threat of communal discord and the expression of nationalistic sentiments," Suresh Chabria writes in Light Of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema, 1912-1934. Mentioning British excesses, the Indian National Congress, self-governance, or even revolution in other countries (Juarez, a 1939 Hollywood film about the fight for self-rule in 1860s Mexico, was forbidden by the Bengal censors) was enough to earn your film a cut or a ban. “It’s a strange phenomenon which we find in this country to see the Government-sponsored Indian News Parade claiming to give all the news to the Indian people while the Censors black-out the Nation’s beloved leaders who make the most news," cine-journal Filmindia complained in 1945, noting that even framed photographs of national leaders were cut from films.

K.A. Abbas with the censor certificate for ‘Char Shahar Ek Kahani’.
K.A. Abbas with the censor certificate for ‘Char Shahar Ek Kahani’.

Then there was the ultimate taboo: Gandhi. Listed in the Journal Of The Motion Picture Society Of India (1937) are the titles of banned newsreels—Mahatma Gandhi’s Historic March, Gandhi Sees The King, Bombay Welcomes Mahatma Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi After his Release, and several others—short non-fiction reports that the British clamped down on. In fact, Gandhi was the hidden subject of the first film to be banned in India. The protagonist of Bhakta Vidur (1921)—with his Gandhi cap, Khadi clothes and spinning wheel—was deemed, quite rightly, to be a stand-in for the Mahatma. Thyagabhoomi (1939) met the same fate; in The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Cinema, it’s mentioned that the Tamil film had documentary inserts of the leader, and that protagonist Sambhu Sastry “is portrayed as the Gandhi of Tamil Nadu, sitting on a dais spinning with a charkha".

It wasn’t just a case of official paranoia over newsreels, then shown before all feature film screenings. Indian fiction film directors were finding ways to talk about the ongoing freedom struggle without mentioning it directly. Door Hato O Duniyawalo, the hit musical number from Kismet (1943), is ostensibly a warning to the Germans and the Japanese, but the actual target is clearly the British. In a 1970 interview, writer-director K.A. Abbas mentions historical films like Umaji Naik (1926) and Swarajya Toran (1930), which replaced the British with other invading forces, and social films like Wrath (1930) and Apna Ghar (1942), which spoke in a kind of code to Indian viewers. “There was ferment all over the country," Abbas recalls, “and it was reflected in the arts and the cinema."

In the 1940s, the policing of Indian cinema grew more stringent. Out of 1,774 films seen by the Bombay censors in 1943, 25 required modification before they could be released; that number went up to 464 (out of 3,099) by 1948. Through the Film Inquiry Committee report submitted to the government in 1951, we get a picture of what censorship was like in the years leading up to, and just after, independence. Things were, to put it mildly, chaotic. The five censor boards examined films separately, and each had their own set of rules and local pressures. Often, a title passed by one would be rejected by another. In addition, the government—of India, or of a particular state—might deny a certificate to a film passed by the censors, a fate which could befall a noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946) or a war film (All Quiet On The Western Front, 1930) as easily as it could a propaganda newsreel (Inside Nazi Germany, 1938).

This was also the decade that saw the disappearance of the kiss from Indian cinema—a curtailment so long and stifling that it hasn’t fully returned yet. Crucially, this wasn’t due to a change in censor rules, but because of a societal shift towards moral caution and “Indian" values. In film critic and historian B.D. Garga’s words, “Kissing disappeared from the Indian screen not because of a fiat of the censor but because of pressures brought on by social and religious groups." It was a sign that film censorship in free India would depend not only on official sanction but on societal approval.

One board to rule them all

In the Bombay Calling column in the February 1949 issue of Filmindia, Baburao Patel praised, in his combative way, a recent development. “We have been asking for this for the last 15 years," he wrote of the move to centralize film censorship, before suggesting a politician of puritanical tendencies, Morarji Desai, as a possible chairman. Over the next few years, a Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC, renamed as Central Board of Film Certification in 1983) was set up, regional boards were abolished, and U and A were adopted as certification categories.

The scrapping of the 1931 Indian Press (Emergency Powers) Act after independence effectively abolished newspaper pre-censorship in India. Yet, as Arpan Banerjee notes in his essay Political Censorship And Indian Cinematographic Laws: A Functionalist-liberal Analysis, there was no corresponding move to free cinema of that restriction. “The Act of 1918 was repealed, but it was later replaced with a law not dissimilar in scope," he writes. This was the Cinematograph Act of 1952, the cornerstone—and, in many ways, the millstone—of film censorship in India.

A still from Pramod Pati’s 1968 short film ‘Explorer’.

The 1952 Cinematograph Act sets out the structure of censorship as it stands today: the chairperson at the top, then the board members, then the advisory panels (members of the initial examining committee and the revising committee, which do much of the actual examination of films, are drawn from these). Everyone, from the chairperson down to the advisory panel members, is a government appointee. And every government at the Centre has taken advantage of this, staffing the CBFC with party loyalists eager to make cuts and deny certificates to films critical of the establishment. The Emergency saw the most blatant use of this power, with Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) and Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) banned, and Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975) stuck in a bureaucratic tangle, because they were perceived as critical of the Congress government.

What makes the Cinematograph Act such a problematic piece of legislation? In short, it gives the CBFC—technically, a certification body—vague and vast powers to play censor. The crux is Section 5B of the Act, which states that any film that is against the “interests of [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" can be denied a certificate. It further asks the government to frame rules according to which the CBFC will function.

These guidelines, which have only increased in number over the years, make for depressing reading. Censors are tasked with ensuring that films provide “clean and healthy entertainment" and do not “deprave the morality of the audience"—instructions broad and stodgy enough to cover anything from a raised middle finger to an orgy. Many of the rules that the CBFC can cite to demand cuts are the same as those followed before independence (no endangering of public order, no depicting the modus operandi of criminals)—which gives one an idea of how archaic our censorship mindset is.

Not all these rules are followed to the letter; if they were, hardly any films would make it to theatres. But they exist, vague and convenient, and that is enough. No Central government has made serious attempts to change them, because they are so useful. You cannot release a film in theatres without a CBFC certificate. And you can’t get a certificate without having a government-appointed body passing judgement on your film.

A still from ‘Aandhi’, which was banned during the Emergency.

Taking censorship to court

In his early days as a critic, K.A. Abbas pushed for the censure of blithely racist Hollywood films like Gunga Din (“It is not enough even if we manage to get the film banned in India," he wrote in 1939). It’s somewhat ironic, then, that he was the one person (until an attempt by Amol Palekar last year) to challenge the idea of pre-censorship in court. In 1968, Abbas—already well-known as the screenwriter of Awara and Shree 420—made a 16-minute documentary, Char Shahar Ek Kahani, which had scenes showing prostitution in Mumbai. The CBFC’s examining committee handed the film an “A" certificate; after Abbas protested, the revising committee reached the same conclusion. After a fruitless appeal to the Central government, Abbas petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that pre-censorship was antithetical to freedom of speech and expression.

The court ruled against Abbas. “The censorship imposed on the making and exhibition of films is in the interests of society," said the judgement, though it also asked Parliament and the government to do more to separate the objectionable from the socially valuable. Though Abbas’ suit was probably doomed from the start, it did have one useful fallout: the formation, in 1981, of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), a quasi-judicial body headed by a retired high court judge, which one could approach if unhappy with the decision of the CBFC’s examining and revising committees.

This is pretty much where things stand today. There have been some minor developments in the years since—films must now carry no-smoking advisories, and it’s almost impossible to shoot a scene with a live animal. In addition to the ever-arbitrary demands of the board—a blurred brassiere here, a bleeped “virgin" there—censorship by mob has emerged as a disturbing issue. Bal Thackeray demanding his own cuts in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay in 1995 and the Shiv Sena’s protests against Deepa Mehta’s Fire in 1998 have acted as a blueprint for violent political groups, which have threatened the makers of films from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil to Padmaavat into deleting scenes and delaying releases. Though most directors, writers and actors today are affected by censorship, the film community—especially Bollywood—has shown little willingness to band together on the issue. “Bollywood does not care," director Dibakar Banerjee says, “because it knows it will somehow navigate through the bureaucratic red tape to survive. It’s a vestige of the licence raj."

A still from ‘Raja Hindustani’.

Hope seemed to surge through the film world when Shyam Benegal was appointed head of a committee to look into censorship in 2016. Those who greeted this as a stepping stone to dismantling censorship were probably unaware that there was a similar committee in 2013 under Justice Mukul Mudgal, whose report made many of the suggestions that the Benegal one did—and which was never implemented. Or that, back in 1969, a committee headed by G.D. Khosla, and counting amongst its members K.A. Abbas, Umashankar Joshi and R.K. Narayan, recommended an autonomous, independent censor board. Letting important reports gather dust is a time-honoured tradition for an opaque bureaucracy like India’s, something that the 83-year-old Benegal seems to have made peace with. When I met him at his office in Tardeo, Mumbai, he said: “I have no idea how much (of the report) has been accepted. I have reminded them any number of times until I’ve lost interest in it."

In an interview to The Hindu in January 2002, Vijay Anand, director of Guide and Jewel Thief and the CBFC chief at the time, was asked whether the media was right to pick on the board’s decisions. “Why not?" he replied. “We are the visible mouthpiece of a moralistic society." This is an uncomfortably honest self-assessment, but there’s some truth to the idea that the board, whether headed by Anand or Leela Samson or Pahlaj Nihalani, isn’t entirely to blame. Film censorship in India can only be fixed if the rules governing it are overhauled. This, in turn, means changing an attitude that has persisted since the days of the British: the tendency to treat the viewer as incapable. Every week, movie-watchers across the country make hard decisions—to go by the review in the morning paper or by their neighbour’s thumbs-down, to spend 200 on a predictable big film or on a small, uneven one. Deciding whether a particular film will offend their sensibilities should also be left to them.

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