The idea of Censorship is primarily to suppress or prohibit the free speech and expression rights, especially when they conflict with the common good of the society. In India, the right to free speech and expression is considered to be a fundamental right under Article 19(1). However, as per Article 19(2) it is subject to certain reasonable restrictions. On this basis, the government has the power to censor any content it deems to be against public order, morality, against the integrity or sovereignty, etc.
The issue of censorship can be observed the most in the relation to cinematographic works in the country. The law governing censorship of films in India has been incorporated under the Cinematographic Act, 1952. The Central Board of Film Certification [CBFC] is a regulatory body, which is tasked with granting clearances to movies for their public exhibition. The Board can categorize the movie as unrestricted or impose certain age restrictions. In addition, it may suggest modification or may even refuse certification of the movie depending upon the content being displayed in the film. Hence, the aim is not to actually censor the movies rather it is just to ensure that is can be viewed publicly and then certify it accordingly. However, the Board has often been criticized for taking up the additional role of censorship in its hands and regulating content as per its very own moral compass. Some controversial cases of censorship can be seen in the cases of movies such as Padmavati, Punjab, Lipstick Under my and so on.
Appellate Tribunal Abolished
As per the 1952 Act, there was an appellate body, i.e., Film Certification Appellate Tribunal [FCAT], where the filmmakers could appeal the certification or suggested cuts by the CBFC. However, the Government recently scrapped the tribunal under the Tribunal Reforms Ordinance, 2021. This has become a cause of concern in the film fraternity as the abolition of FCAT implies that the appeals would now go to the High Courts. This means lengthy and expensive reliefs for filmmakers. Moreover, the FCAT was composed of people belonging to the film industry, who were well-qualified to ensure that a balance is maintained between freedom of artistic expression on the one hand and societal morality and public order on the other.
Proposed Amendment in Types of Certifications
Historically examining, the reasons cited for film censorship in the country have always been related to matters of religion, violence, politics and sexuality, to name a few. As per the 1952 Act, the 4 kinds of certifications that the CBFC is statutorily mandated to give are- Universal ‘U’; Parental Guidance ‘UA’; Adults Only ‘A’; and Restricted to Special Class of Persons ‘S’.
However, the Draft Bill proposes to amend this classification and introduce a more defined system of certification, which is primarily age-based. The proposed certification of movies will be-
‘U’- for all age groups
‘U/A 7+’- it means that those above the age of 7 can view the content however the ones aged less than 7 will require parental guidance.
‘U/A 13+’- it means that those above the age of 13 can view the content however the ones aged less than 13 will require parental guidance.
‘U/A 16+’- it means that those above the age of 16 can view the content however the ones aged less than 16 will require parental guidance.
‘A’- restricted to adults only
Revisionary Powers vested in the Government
The Bill would allow the Government to have revisionary powers in the matters of certification of an already certified film. This means that the Central Government will, if the Bill becomes a law, be authorized to reverse any certification decision of the CBFC. Thus, effectively diminishing the authority of CBFC. Hence, this proposed amendment has rightly caused much furore amongst actors, filmmakers, producers and anyone else associated with the industry. The reason being that this would enable the Government to start censoring content, hence ensuring that the entertainment being offered to the public aligns well the political ideology of the ruling party. This sort of invasive involvement by the Government in matters of mere public entertainment will hamper the growth of arts and culture in the country in the long run.
There are no specific piracy policies in the current Act, hence the Centre has proposed to bring forth the punishment for piracy that will be imprisonment of not less than three months. This may be even extended to three years in addition to a fine which will at least be 3 lakhs but can be extended to “5% of the audited gross production cost” or even both.
It is commendable that the Government has made it their focus to fight the menace of piracy. However, at the same time it is not conducive that in a democratic country the Government is having a final say in matters of art and culture and deciding whether a film certification should be revised or not. Such a move is highly problematic as this would hamper the artistic and creative freedoms vested in the citizens. In addition, it should be borne in mind that India is a diverse nation where people of different religion, faith, culture, social and economic background reside. This means that when any movie or serial is being released, someone or some community or group of people might have certain objections or reservations about it. If Government would start paying heed to every other public outrage then it would be extremely difficult to ensure that the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression is upheld. Although Article 19(2) uses the phrase “reasonable restrictions” however the grounds for the same are highly subjective, which means that the Government can choose to interpret it in any manner favourable to it.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had asked the general public to send their comments on the draft bill by July 2, 2021. It is yet to be seen how the comments are taken by the Government and ultimately how much of the Bill becomes law. However, it is clear that there is a scope of improvement in this Draft.