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Will appointment of panel headed by Shyam Benegal modernise censor board?

Bollywood filmmakers are cautiously optimistic after Centre hints it may do away with censorship and restrict itself to merely certifying movies for suitable audiences

The first day of 2016 has seen the Centre finally taking a firm step to end the censor board’s comical reign, appointing a panel headed by Shyam Benegal to revamp the body.

Also read: Centre sets up panel headed by Shyam Benegal to revamp Censor Board

Shyam Benegal and Pahlaj Nihalani
Shyam Benegal and Pahlaj Nihalani

The appointment, which follows months of public outrage over the board’s functioning, is seen as a clever attempt by the Centre to get rid of Censor Board chief Pahlaj Nihalani without actually sacking him.

Also read: Censor Board will not tolerate abuse, says Pahlaj Nihalani

Nihalani’s term has been a huge embarrassment to the Centre, with the Central Board of Film Certification remaining in the news for all the wrong reasons through last year. Nihalani’s first blunder was to issue a list of cuss words, which included innocuous words like ‘Bombay’. (Click here to read: Censor Board wants to ban the use of 'Bombay' in film titles, dialogues and lyrics?)

Almost every week saw a controversy, with the censor board chopping scenes and muting ‘cuss words’. Things came to a pass when cinemas aired a tacky music video Nihalani produced to highlight the achievements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Click here to read: CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani to be sacked over PM Modi tribute video)

mid-day had reported on November 26 about how the PMO was miffed with Nihalani and he was to soon get the boot. Probably because sacking him outright would have meant the government admitting it made a mistake by appointing him, the Shyam Benegal panel was appointed, sources said.

The panel will submit its report on how to modernise the archaic body in two months. Others named in the panel include film-maker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, National Film Development Council MD Nina Lath Gupta, Union Joint Secretary (Films) Sanjay Murthy, ad man Piyush Pandey and veteran film critic Bhawana Somaaya.

A government statement said: “The recommendations of this Committee are expected to provide a holistic framework and enable those tasked with the work of certification of films to discharge their responsibilities keeping in view this framework, the statement said.

The statement also said that the committee is expected to take note of “how censorship works in different parts of the world, and make sure that the film industry is given sufficient space for creative and aesthetic expression.”

Shyam Benegal told mid-day: “Yes, I have been told about it. I am yet to understand what really is expected of me. I am out of town, I hope to give you more information once I am back tomorrow.”

Another member of the panel, on condition of anonymity, also admitted that they are not really aware of what is expected of them at this point of time. “We are expecting to be briefed soon, and this seems like a big move in the right direction,” said the member.

Reliable sources, however, told mid-day that the government is actually planning to take a bigger step — of doing away with censorship altogether and limiting the board’s mandate to just certification.

A source close to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry said this huge reform is on its way and it could be the most revolutionary decision taken by a government in the last 70 years. The source added that film associations might also get to choose the members of the censor board, with the government staying out of the process. Filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri said if this comes through, it would be a historic decision for the industry.

Vivek Agnihotri
Vivek Agnihotri

“I know the government is planning absolute reform and there will be no middle path,” Agnihotri told mid-day.

“It is absolutely brilliant that the government has chosen some liberal and sensible people in the panel. In the last 70 years, the industry kept asking for abolishing of censorship, but it looks like it is being done now. Only certificates will be given. For adult films, there will be two levels of certification. They are planning to follow the American model. The new rules will be implemented in six months. Also, it is heartening to know that the regulation body will be picked and chosen by the film industry itself,” he said.

Mahesh Bhatt
Mahesh Bhatt

Mahesh Bhatt said while he was happy that people of repute have been chosen for the panel, the report it files should be taken seriously and implemented without delay.

“I just spoke to Shyam babu (Benegal) and he doesn’t even know what he’s expected to do,” said Bhatt. “I remember he was approached to head such a panel back in 1981 and nothing happened. A similar exercise was initiated in 2004 during UPA and nothing happened. I get a feeling of déjà vu. There is a lot of hue and cry, but nothing happens on ground. You can’t run a 21st century industry with a 19th century mindset. I am suffering at the hands of the board with my current movie. So excuse me if I am totally cynical about this thing. In fact, when we had met Arun Jaitley, he had said the PM wants the board to function the way it is.”

Another person skeptical is filmmaker Hansal Mehta. But he said the names in the panel made him optimistic.

“I am trying very hard to be optimistic because the members chosen of the panel have very good credentials,” said Mehta. “It is a good mix of people who genuinely care about cinema. It is a good move. But to think the CBFC will still exist is unsettling. Also, the statement has apparently said something to the effect that it is based on the vision of the prime minister. I wonder what the PM has got to do with creative expression of filmmakers. I am also worried this could be an eyewash like it was earlier, when Rajyavardhan Rathore and Jaitley made promises that things will change and nothing happened. Still, I am hoping for the best.”

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