Shyam Benegal: It is not the job of the CBFC to function as a moral custodian of the public
Shyam Benegal on heading a committee that reassessed the censorship process, and his own experiences with official censure
No creative person would like to have somebody saying you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Everyone wants his or her creative imagination to remain untrammelled, they don’t want it to be cut up. But since we happen to live in society, there are certain norms and conventions which help us function as a community. So anybody who transgresses this sense of community will obviously face censure.
No one has absolute freedom to do what they want. The limits of freedom are set by society. Creatively speaking, a person’s imagination can be boundless. So you have to find a balance in all this.
My first experience of censorship was when I made two documentary films for the Films Division. One was on the tribal community of Bastar. It raised the hackles of the censor board. The censors looked at the film and said there’s too much nudity in the film—Muria (an Adivasi tribe) women, who lived in the forest, continued to dress as they always had, in half lungis without tops. They said you’ll have to cut this, cut that.
I don’t know if this happened to many Films Division documentaries, but it certainly happened to me. In some cases, it was political, in this case it wasn’t. I fought against it. I said, these are tribal communities in our country, these are their social norms. I had called the film “The Jungle People"; the censors changed it to Close To Nature. That was my first experience of how the board worked.
The second experience was a film I made on the 20th anniversary of our independence, about young Indians. It was called Indian Youth: An Exploration. In 1967, there was a massive student strike in Delhi. Students came from all over the country to march down to Parliament. The police broke up the demonstration very brutally. I filmed this. That was taken out of the final cut.
Nishant was another case. I’d just completed the film when the Emergency was declared. The censor board had a problem with the film— they thought it was anti-government and against the Emergency. It simply banned the film.
I happened to know the social secretary of the prime minister. Since this was my second film, and it had been to international festivals and was in competition at Cannes, I thought I should appeal to her to speak to the PM. She said she would ask Mrs Gandhi to see the film. Gandhi at that time used to see films at the Films Division auditorium in Delhi. She had seen my first film, Ankur, which she liked very much. When she saw Nishant, she sent a message to the censor board saying there isn’t anything wrong with the film.
At that time, the bureaucracy tended to behave in a somewhat paranoid manner. The chairman of the censor board, he didn’t want to lose face. He said, you can release the film but you’ll have to carry card titles at the beginning and the end saying that the incidents depicted in the film were based on events that took place before India became independent. Invariably, those cards used to invoke roars of laughter in the audience.
Then I had other kinds of problems. With Bhumika, there were no cuts, no obscenity. According to the censor guidelines, there was nothing that was transgressed, yet it was given an A certificate. I asked, why? They said, the subject of your film is adult. I had a lot of correspondence on this. It was so absurd. Similarly, Mandi had a problem, because the story happened to be set in a brothel. That also got an A certificate and they made a few cuts.
Then, of course, for my sins, the government decided to have me review the censorship board itself. We worked on it for a very long time. We looked at everything involved in certification, starting from how the committees are formed, who are chosen, what the guidelines are. We spoke to all the stakeholders, which is what took the longest amount of time—legal experts, protection of child rights, women’s commission, IBF (Indian Broadcasting Foundation), members of the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification), representatives of the public—so that it would work for the establishment as well as general public. We looked at everything, the Cinematograph Act, 1952, the 1983 rules, the 1991 guidelines. It was the most thorough look at the process.
It is not the job of the CBFC to function as a moral custodian of the public. CBFC is there to tell people what to expect from a given film. Some people react badly to extreme violence and sadism. So you warn them. You leave it to the good sense of the person. You treat people as they should be treated, as normal, intelligent human beings, who vote and who have rationality and intelligence at their command, so they can make choices that are right for themselves.
It also depends on whether the guidelines are studied by the people who certify films. They have to get over their own likes, dislikes, prejudices, and go by the guidelines.
Towards a better CBFC
Four recommendations by the Shyam Benegal committee that we believe should be adopted
The Shyam Benegal-headed committee tasked with looking at the censorship process submitted its reports in April and June 2016. Here are four recommendations which, if adopted, would go some way in improving the censor process:
No cuts by the board
“The committee recommends that the power of excisions, modifications and changes to the film that vested earlier in the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) be removed so that it functions purely as a certification body." In other words, the CBFC wouldn’t be able to ask you to cut your film; it would only certify.
‘Adult with caution’ category
An alternative to the NC-17 rating followed abroad, this would indicate higher than usual levels of violence or sex in a film. The report hoped that this would “release the current pressure-cooker situation" of film-makers inserting suggestive scenes.
Revised criteria for the advisory panels
The examining and revising committees are drawn from advisory panels, whose members do the actual work of certification. The committee suggested drawing from separate pools: members nominated by the CBFC, the National Film Development Corporation, the National Council for Protection of Child Rights and the National Commission for Women for the examining committee; and writers, sociologists, lawyers, etc., for the revising committee.
Less invasive health warnings
Addressing an issue that has plagued film viewers, the committee said the no-smoking warning “disturbs the smooth viewing of the film". It recommended instead a “meaningful static disclaimer" or a short anti-smoking message at the beginning of the film.
As told to Uday Bhatia