The battle between the judiciary and the executive (and its various arms) is never ending. In the recent past, it has actually intensified as the courts have stepped into a twilight zone created either by the executive's dereliction of its responsibilities or by an onrush of judicial activism. In the public eye, the intensity of the conflict is magnified when the battle lines are over civil liberties.
In a recent judgment, the Bombay High Court cleared the film, Udta Punjab, for public viewing after ordering one scene to be deleted. Earlier, the Central Board of Film Certification - erroneously referred to in everyday usage as the censor board - had made the release of the film conditional on 89 cuts. Additionally, the high court berated the CBFC for its "poor understanding of people's minds"- a serious charge considering that the board has been entrusted the responsibility of being the country's moral guardian, at least in one sphere of the creative arts.
The battle between film-makers and the CBFC is not new, and predates the contested appointment of Pahlaj Nihalani as the chairman by the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. However, the spirited controversy over the appointment has served to make the issue a facet of the wider war being waged by 'progressive' and left-inclined artistes and intellectuals against the Bharatiya Janata Party. A significant section of the creative community believes that the BJP is blessed with a retrograde world view that it seeks to impose on the country.
Given the fact that international - and, by implication, Western-dominated -views on India are disproportionately shaped by the predilections of India's intellectual community, it is hardly surprising that the Udta Punjab controversy was viewed as further evidence of India's steady drift towards becoming an 'illiberal' democracy, along the lines of, say, Turkey. The world media had a blast ridiculing the Narendra Modi government for the CBFC's censorship of a prolonged kissing scene in the most recent James Bond film - an act that, apart from being a little over the top, amounted to doing the reputation of Agent 007 grave injustice.
To view the Udta Punjab controversy exclusively through the prism of artistic freedom is tempting, and even partially valid. However, in the context of a booming industry whose box-office turnover is calculated at something in the region of Rs 250 billion, there are other important considerations.
The striking differences between the high court and the CBFC over what is appropriate for public viewing turned out to be huge: one cut versus 89 deletions. Arguably, the Indian Cinematograph Act that prescribes the responsibilities of the CBFC allows a huge scope for discretion. Section 5(B)1 of the Act stipulates that "a film shall not be certified for public exhibition if... it 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 is likely to incite the commission of any offence."
If this constitutes a vast canvas, there are also the May 1983 guidelines issued to the CBFC by the Union government. These charge the CBFC with ensuring "the medium of film remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society"; to ensure "artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed"; and to see that "certification is responsive to social change."
That the guidelines of the CBFC permit for a great deal of subjectivity is obvious. However, when the differences between two versions of enlightened wisdom turn out to be yawning, it could mean either of two things. First, that one of the involved parties was guilty of individual flights of whimsy. Second, the huge perceptional difference could point to the fact that the national consensus over the limits of freedom has broken down irretrievably.
Viewed either way, this is not good news for an industry that combines both wholesome entertainment and the avant-garde. It is understood that film-makers in India work with a large measure of self-restraint, particularly in matters of sex, violence and politics. Moreover, while being mindful of the CBFC, they have also had to develop a sixth sense about the 'super sensors' - those who believe it is their right to be violently aggrieved at the slightest provocation. Taking offence has become a vibrant cottage industry in India and even films cleared by the CBFC without too much fuss have been withdrawn from cinemas following charges that they offended someone living or dead or some community.
Indeed, given the minefields in its path, not least of which is the sheer unpredictability of the film-certification process, it is a wonder that India's film industry has soared to such heights and become an important facet of the country's soft power. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the industry would have grown further and even notched up Rs 500 billion at the box office annually had it not been for socio-political impediments. At the same time, it is worthwhile remembering that most of the films that have been box-office hits and even set cultural trends haven't faced problems with the CBFC. Neither have the so-called 'daring' films that have tested the open-mindedness of the CBFC made much of a mark in the Indian diaspora. The only possible exception may have been Sholay, made during the Emergency years, that was forced to modify a part of its storyline because the CBFC objected to its supposed glorification of violence. But then Emergency also saw Kishore Kumar songs being taken off the State-controlled radio because he had said no to performing at a Youth Congress rally.
The suggestion put forward by the yet-unreleased Shyam Benegal committee report to force the CBFC to confine itself to certification and avoid negotiating cuts is appealing. However, it is unlikely to appeal to most of India and not even to the industry. The last thing India can afford is to face a cultural backlash on account of the radical experimentation of a few film-makers whose contribution to the industry as a whole has been modest. What sets a trend and secures the endorsement of the practitioners of the abstruse discipline called Film Studies should not be allowed to set the standards of openness.
However, it is instructive to remember that the overriding importance of cinema in the social and cultural life of India has been significantly eroded by the multiplicity of entertainment channels on TV and the internet revolution. Both these developments are interesting for the simple reason that TV programmes and video streaming on YouTube are available to everyone without pre-censorship. The sheer volume of sexually explicit and culturally reprehensible material available on the internet has only served to underline the self-defeating character of prudish moral policing by the CBFC. Technology has made a mockery of effective censorship.
At one level, the censorship debate constitutes a footnote in public affairs. For the mainstream film industry too, the inherent arbitrariness of the certification process is a minor (but entirely manageable) irritant. Yet, each occasion, some pretentious film-maker dares the authorities and tests the endurance levels of artistic freedom, the international fraternity of liberals comes down hard on India, portraying it as a grim place where only buccaneers would love to do business. Contesting this one-sided narrative is, alas, not really possible in an unequal world where the idea of freedom is judged in terms of its proximity to permissiveness. Curbing prudish impulses has become an ease of doing business imperative.
Telegraph, July 29, 2016