In April, the union government scrapped the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), a statutory body that heard and resolved pleas of filmmakers, aggrieved by the orders of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The tribunal had the authority to overrule the decisions of CBFC such as reinstating cuts, and in some cases, even certifying/permitting the public screening of films, after the latter’s declinal.
To contextualise the developments, without the FCAT, many notable films including the new critically appreciated film, Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale (2019), and others like Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) and The Insignificant Man (2016) would not have seen the light of the day had it not been for the tribunal. And that’s why when news came of its abolishment, filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj tweeted, “Such a sad day for cinema.” Even then, he might not have been aware that potentially gloomier days were to follow.
And now, of course, the government is discussing the implementation of The Cinematograph Act, 1952, with proposed changes included in the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill 2021, among which the union government will have the power to recertify films that have previously managed to procure a censor certificate from CBFC. Though the original act already provided ‘Revisional Powers’ to the Central Government, the High Court of Karnataka, in KM Shankarappa Vs. Union of India case (1990), had scrapped such powers and ruled that the CBFC would have the final say. The new bill, however, aims to reinstate the centre’s power, and further defines Section 6 of the act as, “This, in other words, means that the Central Government, if the situation so warranted, has the power to reverse the decision of the Board.” The draft is currently submitted to the general public for comments until July 2.
Filmmakers from across the country like Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Vetri Maaran, and Zoya Akhtar, have come up with an open online letter calling this act “another blow to the film fraternity.” This letter has so far received about 1,400 signatures. Actor Rohini Hattangadi, one of the signatories, says, “It makes no sense to recall censored films. The censor board already comprises people from all strata of society, and not necessarily just artists. To override their decision is to doubt their intelligence and ability. It’s a wrong move. With this amendment, anybody can raise objections and get a film re-censored. We won’t be able to put forth our thoughts freely. Art is given the lowest status in our society, whereas it should be placed first. We cannot progress without art.”
While these decisions have come as a surprise to many filmmakers, Devashish Makhija, director of films like Bhonsle (2018) and Ajji (2017), believes this has been coming for a long time. “I am not surprised at all. They have been making similar moves—throttling voices, calling for film bans—to ensure that there is only one narrative out there. Now, such intentions are taking the form of an amendment. This is a stepping stone for something more sinister. Filmmakers have always had it rough, but these last five years have been quite hard. It doesn’t seem like we can have a conversation at all,” he says.
Leena Manimekalai, the writer and director of Maadathy, agrees. “Initially, the plan was to bring in OTT platforms under CBFC’s ambit; then, FCAT got abolished; and now, this! All of this in one year. The agenda is pretty clear. It appears that only those films that will sing praise will be appreciated by the powers that be. The film fraternity needs to wake up urgently.”
Interestingly, there seem to be takers for another aspect of the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, thought of as an attempt to curb film piracy and copyright violations. The bill proposes to bring in strict punishment for such crimes, leading to imprisonment “for a term which shall not be less than three months, but which may extend to three years and with a fine which shall not be less than three lakh rupees, but which may extend to 5% of the audited gross production cost or with both.”
Malayalam filmmaker Sajin Baabu, the director of Biriyaani, who has had his share of issues with certification, likes this part of the amendment. “I don’t believe in opposing everything initiated by the government. The piracy aspect of the bill is favourable to filmmakers and the industry. A three-year sentence for such crimes is a good thing and is important in this age of OTT,” says Sajin, who too goes on to condemn the ‘recertification’ of films. “Influential individuals or groups re-examining certified films is unacceptable. It is also time to replace the letter-based certification with age-based certification. It would bring more clarity.” Devashish, on the other hand, says the anti-piracy intent of the bill is just a facade. He said, “This is the oldest trick in the book.”
When asked about the possible recourse filmmakers should take to fight the amendment, Anand Gandhi, producer of An Insignificant Man and director of The Ship of Theseus (2012) says, “I have been shying away from taking this issue head-on. This is probably the first time I am making an open statement about such an issue. It is time for all of the film fraternity to unite to fight this. There seems to be a sense of fatigue that has set in, in the face of consistent oppression of thought. We need to rise above that.”
He adds, “All we can really do, given the present climate, is to battle the incoming policy. We will have to fight cases. It seems to be our last resort.”
Despite our efforts, we couldn’t reach out to CBFC. Leena has a rather radical proposition for her peers: “Stop production, simple. Make your voice felt in every way you can. Isn’t that better than being a slave filmmaker?”
(With inputs from Shilajit Mitra and Sajin Shrijith)