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Amendments to Cinematograph Act will give Modi govt a heckler’s veto to suppress films

An order from the govt asking for a review after CBFC has certified a film is a clear sign that the Centre wants to have a say in the decision-making process.

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The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a notification last month seeking comments on proposed changes to the Cinematograph Act, 1952. The amendment encompasses significant changes to the mechanism for classifying films. Experts have criticised the move on three grounds.

First, the proposed changes give the Union government more control over films in India, which may threaten creative freedom and upend film production in the country. Second, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has a robust mechanism for film certification and there is no need to fix something that is not broken. Third, the government has not provided enough time for meaningful consultation and the proposed changes ignore suggestions of reports by two committees of experts on CBFC reform. The  I&B ministry asked for feedback within 14 days of issuing the notification.

Certification and proposed changes

The Cinematograph Act, 1952 prescribes a rigorous and time-tested mechanism to certify films that can be shown in cinema halls and at other public places. The law also creates the CBFC. Based on the Union government’s guiding principles, the CBFC determines the category under which a film shall be classified and also suggests modifications to align the content with its guidelines. The Cinematograph Act classifies movies in four categories: unrestricted viewing (U), unrestricted, but with parental guidance for children below the age of 12 (U/A), restricted to adults (A) and restricted to a class or a profession (S). One of the CBFC’s nine regional offices views films, classifies them and recommends excisions and modifications. An advisory panel appointed by the Union government assists these regional offices.

The CBFC follows a comprehensive process for certification that includes a three-stage procedure that factors in the views of experts as well as disagreements. A regional officer assisted by advisory panel members watches a film, determines the appropriate category and may suggest cuts or recommendations based on guidelines issued by the government and issue a certificate. In case of disagreement or ambiguity, a revising committee of the CBFC will reconsider the recommendations made by the regional office. If there is still a disagreement, the CBFC chairperson may refer the matter to another revising committee. An order from the government asking for a review, after CBFC has certified a film, is a clear sign that the Union government wants to have a say in the decision-making process. This is demoralising for a board that has to certify more than 2,000 films in a year because a review indicates the CBFC has erred in its decision. For a filmmaker, who may have already made several cuts and modifications at an earlier stage of the certification process, a government-ordered revision is another unwanted obstacle that holds back the release of their film.

The proposed amendments aim to make two important changes to the certification process. First, the category U/A will be subdivided based on age into U/A 7+, U/A 13+ and U/A 16+. Second, the amendment will empower the Union government to direct the CBFC to reconsider the certificate it has issued to a film, if the government feels that it does not conform to the ‘Guiding Principles’ under Section 5B(1). Under the section, CBFC shall not certify films that go against “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of the State, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence”. The curious aspect here is that the amendment seeks to circumvent a Supreme Court decision that read down the Union government’s powers. The 2000 judgment held that the government cannot weigh in on cases where the CBFC has already considered and certified a film.


Also read: Tougher piracy controls, Centre’s certification power — what film certification bill changes


Revisionary powers of the government

The proposal to give revisionary powers to the Union government is problematic on several counts. Before looking at these concerns, it is important to underline that the government already exercises significant control over the certification process. All CBFC members, regional officers and the advisory panel are appointed by the Union government. It also decides the guidelines based on which the CBFC shall classify films. The Union government also has the power to suspend, change or revoke a certificate under Section 5E and Section 6(2). The proposed amendment allows the Union government to resend a certified film to the CBFC seeking a review, on the grounds of national security and/or public order, among other things.

The latest amendment to the Cinematograph Act would give the Union government a heckler’s veto to suppress films it considers harmful to its political interests. More importantly, these interventions directly harm the economics of moviemaking in India because film revenues are heavily dependent on theatrical releases. A film producer gets a return on their investment only after a movie is released in the theatres. For every day’s delay in the release of the movie, the producer incurs a substantial loss.

As it is, the certification process in India is more stringent than in other countries, according to a 2016 report by the Shyam Benegal Committee of Experts. It also recommended that the role of the CBFC be limited to film classification and that it should not act as a censor board. In the United Kingdom, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) appoints compliance officers to view films and approve the age recommendation suggested by a filmmaker. The role of a BBFC compliance officer (or a panel of officers) is limited to approving or recommending changes to the classification the filmmaker suggests based on BBFC Guidelines. In the United States, the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) is a group of parents that decides the content that is suitable for their children to watch.


Also read: And, cut! — Modi govt’s new cinema bill a ‘super censor’. And Netflix no longer an oasis


Level-playing field?

Amendments to the Cinematograph Act, 1952 follow a series of changes proposed by the I&B ministry to regulate different media. For online and OTT content, the ministry released the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, creating a classification system and grievance redressal procedure. The ministry then amended rules for cable television to create a similar grievance redressal mechanism for TV content. The ministry argued that there should be a level-playing field for all content, regardless of the medium on which it is aired. So if the CBFC classified films for theatrical release, a similar system should be put in place for online content. Hence, it included an age-appropriate classification system in the IT Rules, 2021. With the proposed amendment to the Cinematograph Act, the government is making the playing field uneven again by imposing stricter control over release in cinema halls. More worryingly, they will negate the Narendra Modi government’s moves to incentivise movie production in India. Filmmakers across India and the world will not avail these incentives if such fetters are added to the production process. Worse, these amendments will prevent cinema being used as an instrument of soft power, as envisaged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

One of the Modi government’s promises when it came to power was ‘minimum government, maximum governance’. The recent changes by the I&B Ministry are antithetical to that idea because they create more intervention points for the Union government. In sectors like media and entertainment, which flourish on the power of ideas and original thinking, democratic governments should not do anything that stifles creative freedom. The draft Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill 2021 suggests that exactly the opposite will happen.

The author works at Koan Advisory Group, a technology policy consulting firm. Views are personal.

This article is part of ThePrint-Koan Advisory series that analyses emerging policies, laws and regulations in India’s technology sector. Read all the articles here.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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