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Bollywood beyond boycotts: The urgent need for CBFC reforms- Cinema express

Bollywood beyond boycotts: The urgent need for CBFC reforms

The Benegal Committee and the Justice Mukul Mudgal Committee of 2013 had both suggested moving away from censorship towards age-based rating/classification norms for films

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Published: 23rd January 2023

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the BJP’s National Executive meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday, reproached party leaders and workers for making “unnecessary comments” on “irrelevant issues” like movies that “overshadow the hard work we do”. He asked them to focus on the work at hand instead. This is a significant call in light of the fact that urgent matters concerning the nation do get brushed aside in the needless brouhaha over trifles. Moreso, it’s also a pointer to a serious concern—the perception battle that Bollywood has all but lost in the last few years.

The Mumbai film industry has persistently been in the eye of a boycott and ban storm, the latest to suffer being Yash Raj Films’ big ticket Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Pathaan. Things had been coming to a head for a while now with even members of the film fraternity aligned with the regime feeling the heat and foreign media taking cognisance of the phenomenon. A normally reticent Amitabh Bachchan felt compelled to talk about civil liberties and freedom of expression at the inauguration of the Kolkata International Film Festival. Suniel Shetty made a case for the brow-beaten industry with the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath.

While industry bodies have welcomed PM’s statement, acknowledging it as a much-needed relief from the ongoing distress, the sceptical like Anurag Kashyap think that it is a case of too little coming too late and believes that the mob has gone out of hand. Even in light of the PM’s statement, #BoycottBollywoodForever has been trending on Twitter. Hindu seer Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati constituted the ‘Dharma Censor Board’ to review Bollywood films and keep a check on any “anti-religious” content or distortion of facts about Sanatan Dharma.

So, there’s another question that looms: Would the move safeguard the films in the future, or would it just cast a safety net for now on Pathaan? Whatever might be the case, it is for the film industry to seize this opportune moment and bring to focus the scourge of extra-constitutional censorship that has been plaguing it. It should also be an occasion to bring the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) reforms back into debate and discussion.

For several years now, the film industry—not just small filmmakers but even the stars—has been forced down on its knees by fringe elements that seem to operate beyond the purview of the sanctity of censor certificate and the rule of the law-and-order machinery. Films have been threatened with bans despite getting cleared by the Censor Board. In fact, the bigger films and stars have been left more vulnerable to these attacks because of big money riding on them.

Karan Johar was forced to go defensive in a video on his film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) that was targeted for featuring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in a small role. He had to bow down at the time of the release of Wake Up Sid (2009) for objections against the use of the word Bombay instead of Mumbai.
Govind Nihalani’s TV serial Tamas (1988), Hansal Mehta’s Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! (2000), Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania (2005), Alankrita Srivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018) have all faced the wrath of the mobs in the name of the presumably objectionable portrayal of community, religion or politics. If the Uttar Pradesh government had stopped Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan (2011), Madhur Bhandarkar’s Traffic Signal (2007) wasn’t shown in Himachal Pradesh. Innumerable public interest litigations (PILs) were filed against Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008). The Supreme Court had to be moved after Vishwaroopam (2013) was stalled by the Tamil Nadu government and Da Vinci Code (2006) was banned in Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Nagaland and Mizoram.

Apart from an assurance and insurance against the writ of the trigger-happy fringe groups, there’s also the urgent need for the long overdue rehaul of the CBFC. While the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT)--the significant statutory body that used to hear appeals by filmmakers/producers aggrieved by the decision of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)--was unilaterally abolished last year, the recommendations of the Shyam Benegal Committee of 2016, that the government had promised to implement, appear to have been put on the back burner.

The Benegal Committee and the Justice Mukul Mudgal Committee of 2013 had both suggested moving away from censorship towards age-based rating/classification norms for films. This progressive measure can go a long way in helping the industry breathe easy and restore its downbeat spirit to creativity and health. Is the latest announcement merely words, or is there a chance for some positive action?

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