Dismantle Soviet-era Censor Board

The Central Board of Film Certification, popularly known as ‘Censor Board’, has often been in the news for the wrong reasons. The CBFC should have been a faceless entity operating below the radar like any other sarkari institution, of which we in India have a surfeit.


Riding the controversy: A still from the film MSG: The Messenger of God, starring Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. Leela Samson and her team resigned from the CBFC, feeling slighted by the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal that overturned the Censor Board’s decision to deny a certificate to the movie. file pic

We rarely get to hear of the Lalit Kala Akademi, the Sahitya Akademi, the Natya Akademi and similar other myriad tax-funded institutions — for instance the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which showcases the talents of relatives and wives of those in power — that were set up during the glorious era when umbrellas would come out in Delhi every time it rained in Moscow.

Impressed by the practice in the USSR and the East Bloc, where culture, entertainment and information were the preserve of the Government and the Communist Party, one a mirror image of the other, Jawaharlal Nehru decided
to impose a similar system on the Sovereign Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic of India. Mrs Indira Gandhi converted the system of command and control into a system of patronage.

The Soviet Union is long gone; the Soviet Empire has long become a distant memory. Institutions of state control have withered away, if not in Russia then in most of the countries that constituted the East Bloc. Amazingly, a quarter century after India bid farewell to voodoo socialist economics, it is yet to dump its socialist baggage.

And so it is that the Censor Board, or the CBFC if you wish, continues to decide for us, the citizens of the world’s largest democracy, what kind of movies we should watch and what we shouldn’t. For the uninitiated, the CBFC is a statutory body which came into existence under the Cinematography Act of 1952. It works under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, another leftover of the socialist era.

None would have really bothered about the CBFC, had it done its job to the best of the ability of its members and shunned controversy. But then, what fun is playing censor if it must be kept away from public space? Like most of Government and its babudom, the CBFC also believes in displaying its clout. Getting to head it, or be nominated as a member, is ‘Musli Power’.

Let’s take the example of Leela Samson and her team. The former dance teacher of Priyanka Gandhi and assorted Janpath khansamas would have never imagined that the mightiest of filmmakers would be at their mercy. Nor could they have ever thought that they would get to decide what more than a billion people can legitimately watch in public or in private.

Leela Samson and her team resigned after feeling slighted by the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal that overturned the CBFC decision to deny a certificate to a movie called MSG: The Messenger of God. Now we have film-maker Pahlaj Nihalani heading CBFC. He is assisted by a new team.

If the charge against Leela Samson and her team was that they were political appointees, then that charge is equally valid against Pahlaj Nihalani and his team. If the former regime was using political discretion to grant or deny certificates, dictate cuts, or let a film go without cuts, then the new lot will be no different.

Which brings me to the point: Do we need the CBFC at all? Why is it that India cannot emulate decent democracies like the US and the UK and allow films to be rated or certified by a body set up by the film industry? What business is it of the Government to clear films for public screening? Or, for that matter, why should government be involved with history studies?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was keen to strip ministers of discretionary powers to put an end to corruption in high places. Open rule-based governance can achieve that goal. But what about bodies which have enormous discretionary powers and abuse them more often than not?

This was a golden opportunity to rid India of leftover Soviet trash. The CBFC, like the Planning Commission, should have been dismantled and relegated to the dustbin of history. Unfortunately, the Indian version of the Saudi mutaween, the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, it has just received a new lease of life.

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