By Vinod Mirani
There is a curious situation vis a vis the Censor Board of Film Certification! How relevant is its existence now? The Board, which was the pawn of the ruling regimes and which made or marred a film’s prospects at the box office.
The Cinematograph Act 1957, has rules laid down for what it describes as public viewing. Films were meant for public exhibition and, hence, needed to be monitored. Things started changing when television entered the scene. The CBFC had no control here as this was considered home entertainment and not public exhibition.
Even when the television made its entry into India, because the medium was state-owned, it had to follow the norms. Government-controlled television was in the analogue signal initially. It telecast films based programmes like “Chhayageet”, but its main attraction was the Sunday evening telecast of a feature film. It was still a black and white era.
With India hosting the 1982 Asian Games, colour television made its foray. This was followed by video players. That not only gave birth to piracy, but also brought in its wake cable broadcast in the form of home video. This business was grossly illegal and there was no control on the activity. All the films shown on cable were pirated, without acquiring rights. It became so blatant, that the pirated films premiered simultaneously on cable along with its cinema release.
The producers tried their best to appoint agencies to check on cable operators, which only led to corruption as these agencies started collecting ‘hafta’ from cable operators. Exhibition being a state subject, governments were also losing out on a lot of revenue in the form of entertainment tax. Cable operators were not streamlined and did not pay taxes of any kind. However, no government was concerned.
When there were no other channels, Doordarshan was an additional source of income for filmmakers. However, films certified with ‘A’ certificates were not allowed to be telecast on TV. Not all ‘A’ films fell in the slot of vulgarity or violence. Finally, such films were permitted in late night slot of 11 pm!
Coming back to the Censor Board, it lost the plot when films duly censored but with interpolated clippings of porn films were shown on cable. Also, each cable operator, wherever in India, had a special slot for porn films, starting late night after 10 pm!
Then came private satellite TV channels, which spelt big bucks for films. Film producers devised a way to circumvent the ‘A’ certificate block on these television channels. Once the theatrical run for a film was over and it came to selling television rights, the producer of a film would apply with a film’s revised version, doing away with all the footage that had earned the film an ‘A’ certificate. That way, a maker would get the best of both the worlds.
The Central Board Of Film Certification has always been held in a negative light with the film industry, whichever the regime calling shots. It is known to appoint people on its committees who have no clue of filmmaking or what a film-lover wanted. They played favourites with producers, created waiting lists and, then, manipulated these lists. Things became so ridiculous that there came a time when not only films, but even the film publicity material was needed to be presented to a film producers’ body, which would duly endorse it as clean and only then the film could proceed for censor certificate. Thankfully, such foolhardy, kneejerk dictates don’t last long and the rule died an un-ceremonial death.
So, how relevant it the Censor Board today when millions of minutes of content is streamed on digital media? CBFC has no say here because it was meant only to be a watchdog of films meant for public exhibition in cinema theatres. Of course, it was an ill-conceived brainchild of the British, who did not care what the Indians watched as long as it was not anti-Raj. No secret that the free India regimes continued to use it as a tool to control the filmmakers.
The digital media has taken over now, and all kind of content is beamed straight to home of a subscriber. From the day the first controversial streaming from Hindi content makers, “Sacred Games”, hit the home screens, there has been a hue and cry that the content was not only gory and sexually explicit, even depicting unnatural sex, but also against all that the Indian Censor has stood for.
The CBFC has no jurisdiction over digital platform. It is in a peculiar situation of being hard on film content while watching some filthiest and disturbing content on the OTT platforms. Add to that, even the films that were in the CBFC domain, which could not be screened in cinemas, can now bypass the Board and can be shown through online streaming not requiring a censor clearance.
The last amendment the Government made to the Cinematography Act was a year back, in 2019. It dealt only with piracy, and the kind of penalties and punishment it would entail. The amendment came some 35 years too late. A lot many films are available on certain digital platforms that are not acquired rightfully. Isn’t that piracy?
All the porn that one may want to watch is available on the net. So, is watching pornography in the privacy of your home a crime? The Apex Court thinks it is not. So, what good is censorship of films in today’s times, especially since no filmmaker is yet seen going overboard even in films shown on streaming platforms!
Yes, the made-for-OTT platforms do force a lot of violence and sex. But, now these platforms provide programmes from all over the world, and there is no way they can be censored. So, why should Indian content be censored? One only wishes Indian makers did not make sex look so vulgar and repulsive, but added a little finesse.
(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal)