This is authored by Janaki Nair a 3rd year B. A. LLB student in Symbiosis Law School Pune. The following article deals with the cinema industry of mainly India and the different ways in which specific laws are put up that streamline the content for viewers all around the world. The article will be discussing the different censorship laws that relate to different entertainment platforms in the film industry.
The Entertainment Industry of India is unparalleled. The Indian entertainment industry is known both nationally as well as internationally for its glitz and glamour, especially in the cinema industry. Its one of the biggest cinema hubs of the world and is known for its vibrancy, diversity, and drama with its vast cultural differences in different parts of the country. However, a cinema is produced not only with the mind to unleash creativity and storytelling techniques but also to engage the audience. India, with its population, has an enormous audience to market films too. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Population Fund, India is currently the country that has its largest amount of adolescent and youth in its population.
Due to it being a developing country, proper education is also something that is slowly progressing which again makes the young viewers completely reliant on cinema for their real-life issues also. The young, impressionable, and naïve Indian audience may fall prey to the fiction that is cinema and therefore the Government has established what is known as Censorship across the country.
Censoring a cinema means properly and thoroughly analyze and vet the film before being approved for distribution in theatres. In this manner, scenes that are inappropriate and/or violent can be discarded away to not harm the viewer’s mind. Censorship also has its critics that state that they are willingly destroying and damaging the essence of the film as a whole by cutting certain parts of it from the eyes of the public. However, the positives outweigh the negatives in the Indian terrain especially, and numerous censorship laws have circulated throughout the country for decades.
Development of Censorship Laws
The first instance of ‘control’ over cinema originated in late 18th century Paris. A year and a half after the first film screening in history, tragic events unfolded wherein the film stock was mixed with another chemical compound which made it into an explosive material that accidentally killed over 126 people in Paris. This type of tragedy continued over the decade which led to the first cinematograph legislation passed in the year 1909 by Britain that aimed at controlling the issuance of cinema licenses. As with human nature, controlling the conditions of film screening gradually translated into an even more restriction of controlling the content in the film. After a few years, the British Board of Film Censors was established in the year 1912. Around the same time, the English began to notice the surge in popularity of cinemas in India. The year 1917 saw a bill to the same effect being raised in the Imperial Legislative Council which also recommended the birth of a law that would ensure the safety of the Indian public from inappropriate or otherwise objectional publications, and thus the Cinematograph Act of 1918 which housed censorship laws was born in India.
Cinematograph Act, 1918
Under the following act, the district magistrates were provided with the power to issue licenses to films, and the local governments were instructed to appoint ‘examiners’ who analyze and certify films based on whether they were appropriate for the public- viewing. However, a major lacuna of the above act was that there were no suitable guidelines for these inspectors and examiners to assess the film’s appropriateness with. However, this issue was gradually sorted in 1920 when censor boards were established in important cities like Madras, Bombay, Calcutta, and Rangoon and adopted certain rules to be followed. Therefore, these censor boards had around 43 objectionable materials that were not allowed to be showcased to the public. The 1920s were also the period of the non – cooperation movement and therefore, scenes that showed confinement were also not allowed to be shown in movies because the authorities feared that it may incite communal tensions within the people. Furthermore, films either about or featuring Mahatma Gandhi were also strictly prohibited. The British were extremely paranoid about the rising nationalist sentiments across the country, and they projected this paranoia into the cinema industry by cutting anything that mentioned the Indian National Congress, self-governance, revolution in other countries, etc. Till the 1940s, the censorship scene was said to be extremely chaotic as the 5 boards did not have any organization or co-operation among each other.
Cinematograph Act, 1952
All of this came to a boiling point in the year 1949 where the five regional boards were abolished, and a Central Board of Film Censors was set up. The letters U/A and A were recognized and were placed as a warning on the type of film it was supposed to be. Even though after Independence censorship laws on newspapers were abolished, the film industry still did not stand a chance. It became even more restrictive in its censoring – it was then realized that India has to satisfy the society as well as the censor board to produce profitable films.
The 1918 Act was also repealed but was replaced with the Cinematography Act of 1952 which was extremely similar to the 1918 act in scope. In the year 1983, the name of the central censorship board was changed to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). According to the Act, the CBFC can, after reviewing the film, do the following:
- Allow the film for unrestricted public access and exhibition,
- Allow the film for restricted public access and exhibition only to adults,
- Direct the film directors for modifications in the film to make it available for either public or adults-only access,
- Refuse the film to public exhibition.
The first case concerning the censorship laws that took place in Independent India was the case of K.A Abbas v. Union of India, 1971 AIR 481, 1971 SCR (2) 446. The question of pre-censoring films arose in this case where the Supreme Court had ruled that pre-censorship was constitutionally valid under the reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, and hence, could be exercised when necessary. Furthermore, in the case of S. Rangarajan Etc vs P. Jagjivan Ram, 1989 SCR (2) 204, 1989 SCC (2) 574, the court had stated that if film censorship does not fall under the reasonable restrictions under A.19(2) of the Constitution, then the film cannot be suppressed by way of any public protest, threat, or violence. The court further stated that, if done so, then it would violate the Rule of Law and would be seen as a surrender to intimidation and blackmailing techniques.
Critiquing the CBFC
The Central Board of Film Certification, however, is widely criticized all across the country and the criticisms have only been gaining momentum as the society becomes more progressive and modern in its thoughts. The 1952 Act only made the CBFC a board that had to ensure certification without endangering the creative and artistic expression of the filmmakers. However, there have been several instances wherein the CBFC had allegedly gone above and beyond their power by acting as moral police of sorts. The most recent case that talks about this would be about the film Udta Punjab wherein the CBFC ordered a huge number of deletions which included the names of some states, references to cuss words, etc. This was taken to the Bombay High Court where the producers had pleaded for the exhibition of the film under the ‘A’ category without any deletions, and the court allowed the same by stating that there was no need for the Board to issue these many deletions merely based on drug sales in a particular state.
Upon answering a query filed under the RTI Act, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had clarified that the CBFC was only authorized to control and police the films that are distributed to theatres and televisions and not the ones that are released on the Internet. Therefore, online streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. are at present free from the confines of any code of conduct of the CBFC except for the IT Act provisions that talk about child pornography and so on. Though some parts of the public feel as if the digital content – makers could do with a code in place, the content – makers themselves vehemently oppose the idea of any code burdening them by potentially curbing the creative freedom that they enjoy at the moment. The pandemic has further increased this vehement opposition in internet content providers as this method is their only source of both creative expression and income.
To conclude, it is not a new revolutionary opinion to suggest that the current censorship board needs to evolve. Society and thereby the morals and values of the public keep changing, and it only impedes democracy if industries within the country do not change with the times. The CBFC is still stuck with archaic notions that have not changed that much from the pre-independence times which makes it an extremely difficult concept to work within today’s times. Instead of protecting and ensuring the safety of the public, the CBFC is slowly becoming a catalyst of moral policing.
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