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

From Haider to Tandav, India is no stranger to the ‘invisible hand’ in films and content. But the new Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill takes it a step further.

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When in doubt, India’s factory setting is to ban. So why would India’s film industry trust the central government to be the ultimate and fair censor? After the Film Certificate Appellate Tribunal was removed by the Narendra Modi government, the film industry was given the recourse of going to courts. Now there is likely to be a supra-body that will have the final say.

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has proposed a new Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021. Among other things, it allows the Union government to order a ‘re-examination’ of an already certified film if there are complaints against it.

Last week, a letter from 3,000 film industry members to the I&B ministry called it “another blow to the film fraternity” and said “this provision will effectively give the Central Government supreme power over cinema exhibition in the country, potentially endangering freedom of expression and democratic dissent.” Signatories included Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Farhan Akhtar, Mira Nair, and Rajeev Ravi.

If art mimics life, this is it.

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

And, cut!

Earlier this year, Amazon Prime Video’s web series Tandav met with serious public outrage for “misrepresenting” Hindu gods and hurting the religious sentiments of those aggrieved enough to file FIRs against the makers. These supposedly offensive scenes were then removed and Amazon issued a public apology. to those hurt by such content. However, these things tend to snowball and get uglier. When it happened with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat in 2018, the snowballing led to the Kshatriya Mahasabha saying anyone who chopped off actress Deepika Padukone’s nose and ears would get Rs 1 crore.

The frenzy around Tandav this time was enough to bring the police into action; questioning Prime Video’s India content chief Aparna Purohit and forcing her to submit an anticipatory bail plea.

With the new draft amendment bill, film industry members fear more ‘revisions’ and trips to courts.

India is no stranger to ‘the invisible hand’ in films.

In fact, the reins on Indian cinema were well established even before Tandav. The Central Board of Film Certification came down harshly on many popular releases. Films such as Haider (2014) received its U/A certificate only after 41 cuts. The critically acclaimed film Udta Punjab (2016) was released with one cut — that the court weighed in on after the CBFC suggested 13 cuts. Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) and Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) that addressed themes of sexuality and women’s liberation, received similar reproach from the Board. The CBFC refused to certify the former initially because it was ‘lady oriented’, and the latter had scenes censored, even on Netflix.

During Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, prints of Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursi Ka were destroyed — the film was later released with significant cuts.

Also read: For OTT platforms in India, Tandav blurs the line between self-regulation and censorship

Films in a democracy

The new amendment bill, which was open for public comments till 2 July 2021, is a revised version of the Cinematograph Act of 1952. The government power to ‘vet’ has already been extended to OTT platforms. The Modi government recently notified IT Rules for OTT and digital news platforms.

They say art and life mimic each other. That can’t be more true for India in 2021.

The Centre’s certification and revision power — some have called it a ‘super censor’ now — can dilute the creative freedom of not only those making the film but all stakeholders of such artwork alike. Art and society have a mutually reciprocal relationship, constantly shaping each other. Art takes inspiration from society and society feeds off art. Art is a strong political force and filmmakers often address the risky, the profane, the dogmas of institutional apathy, caste-politics and communalism through it. But Indians are finding it surprisingly difficult to dissent in films and the streets these days.

So, most filmmakers found a way out — OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. But with increasing FIRs and complaints, and the IT Rules, that oasis is going further away.

This will make many mainstream films — and “indie” films — lose crucial platforms, disorienting the way such art is produced and consumed. OTT platforms might have to brutally inspect a film for supposed red flags and, in the process, shy away from such films altogether.

Renowned documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan said, “something like Netflix won’t touch my films. They’re scared that they’ll be thrown out of the country.”

The global cinematic trend seems to be moving close to meaningful, nuanced cinema and series, beyond the purview of sanitised and glamorised big Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters. We might be taking a step or two backward now.

To be sure, India does need better privacy rules and perhaps age-based film certification — both of which are in the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2021. It’s the revision part that’s alerted the film industry.

The encroachment of the central government on creative independence, in mandating what films can be produced and consumed, weakens the scope of a mature democracy.

Also read: New OTT rules won’t stop Bollywood’s queer stories – Geeli Pucchi to The Married Women

India needs a good film council

Is it time to mourn the slow death of creative freedoms in Indian cinema, or what was left of it anyway?

Censorship hinges on fears and anxieties of the government as well as social groups. It works as a perfect social tool for the BJP and the RSS to move the public, because Hindutva also rests on Hindu historical anxieties and insecurity.

And so, the Cinematograph (Amendment Bill) 2021, subsequent restrictions on OTT platforms and the abolishment of the FCAT only add further fuel to the fire. Especially because the new revision powers in the bill depend on complaints against the films. Regardless of who is in power — Congress or BJP — film cuts and bans are a way to mould audience perceptions and set a narrative.

India needs a good and independent film council, like the FCAT, not more acts allowing ‘revisions’.

Views are personal.

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