Free the screen

The Mudgal committee suggests all-too-necessary reforms for film certification.

Movies, the liveliest of the arts, are a risky business in India. Filmmakers have to weigh every creative decision for potential trouble with the certification board, and they may even have to placate political fronts and citizen groups seeking bans, or distributors who run shy of screening controversial material. Acknowledging that the system is broken, after Kamal Hasan's Vishwaroopam ran into trouble in Tamil Nadu, the I&B ministry set up a panel headed by Justice (retd) Mukul Mudgal to reassess the Cinematograph Act, 1952. The committee has produced an enlightened report, suggesting a move from blunt "U" and "A" categories to a rating system based on age, as used in many other countries. It made many other sensible suggestions, from changing the way screening committee members are found to strengthening the appellate tribunal. It also emphasised that states should not be allowed to invoke law and order to interfere with a film once it has been cleared by the certification board. Though the Supreme Court has affirmed this principle, it is frequently disregarded, as nervous administrations give in to anyone who raises their voice to block a film. One instance strengthens another, and so the most irritable judgements prevail, and citizens think such bans are their due.

The Cinematograph Act was first rolled out in 1918, and for all its subsequent amendments, is tinged with the colonial view of the audience as infantile, in need of wise adults to cover their eyes and ears from anything "offensive". After Independence, the state used the law's provisions to curb depictions of sex and violence, seemingly afraid of setting off unruly energies. It also banned films, changed endings and forced scenes to be reshot, to the extent that producers often end up skirting difficult material to avoid litigation later. Our movies rarely name political parties or take on live controversies. As the Mudgal panel noted, the composition of screening committees is often dictated by political factors rather than reflecting diverse sensibilities. They have often hewed to the most conservative views, despite occasional blips, like when Vijay Anand headed the board and suggested X-rated theatres for soft porn.

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