A censorship row

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting faces the ire of documentary film-makers for insisting on Censor Board certification for Indian films that are shown at festivals in the country.

THE new Ministry of Information and Broadcasting faced its first major test when documentary film-makers protested against an advertisement it issued in The Times of India's Delhi edition published on May 7 which said that films required the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) certificate to be eligible for the National Film Awards and for entry into the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) 2004. The CBFC was set up by the Government of India under the Cinematograph Act, 1952, to certify films for public exhibition. All films, whether foreign, Indian, feature or documentary, have to obtain the CBFC certificate before they are screened at a cinema or broadcast on television. The advertisement also stated that films that were shot in the digital format and were not going to be released in the celluloid format would not be allowed entry. The rules of the 51st National Film Festival say that films shot in the digital format would become eligible only if they are intended to be released in the celluloid format.

The government's reason for demanding a censor certificate, which is a continuation of the previous Ministry's practice, is that it is a means of determining the date of completion of the film. Film-makers argue that the CBFC certificate is only for public screening and that it has become a means of keeping films that are critical of the government out of film festivals. Says Sanjay Kak, whose film Words over Water deals with the struggle of people displaced by the dams across the river Narmada: "Why do you need a censor certificate to determine the date of completion of the film? In fact, the norm for most international film festivals is not to have any requirements for censorship for any of the films."

Says Rahul Roy, an independent film-maker: "When the National Film Awards were constituted by the government 50 years ago, the digital format was still in its experimental stages. Today film and video technology has advanced to the point where almost all film festivals and an increasing number of cinemas all over the world are equipped to show digital format films." He adds, "Films can be blown up to the celluloid format using a process called `reverse telecine', which costs between Rs.20 lakhs and Rs.25 lakhs a feature-length film. Today, fewer than 5 per cent of the documentary films made internationally are shot on celluloid and fewer than 1 per cent of documentary films shot worldwide are blown up into celluloid. Since the main institution in India that continues to make documentary films in celluloid format is the Films Division, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, by excluding documentary films produced and distributed in the digital format, the Ministry is in effect discriminating against independent film-makers who mostly use the digital format."

Says Kak: "On the surface this may seem to be a discussion surrounding a technological issue but it actually has much larger implications. Films that are made in the celluloid format have to be censored once they are out of the lab, while films made in the video format do not have to be. Therefore there are fewer restrictions with the video format and as a result there is a wider range of subjects that are often more critical that are made in the video format."

The Cinematograph Act requires a censor certificate for the public exhibition of films, but the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has the power to grant exemptions. The norm has been for the Ministry to give regular exemptions for Indian films screened in film festivals within the country. In August 2003, when the government attempted to make the CBFC certificate mandatory for Indian documentaries and short films entered in the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF 2004), around 300 film-makers from all over the country came together in the Campaign Against Censorship on a platform called Films for Freedom (Frontline, February 27, 2004). As a result of sustained pressure, the government withdrew the requirement. However, the organisers of MIFF tried unofficial methods of censorship by rejecting many films that were viewed as exploring "sensitive" subjects such as communalism and globalisation. In order to protest against this, many film-makers organised a parallel film festival called Vikalp through personal contributions of individual film-makers. The films that were rejected by MIFF and the films of six film-makers who withdrew from MIFF were shown at Vikalp.

At this year's Osian's Cine Fan, the 6th Festival of Asian Cinema in Delhi, the only new Indian entry was Rakesh Sharma's Final Solutions, a graphic and powerful indictment of the role of the Gujarat State machinery during the pogrom against Muslims in 2002. The organisers of the festival initially asked him to obtain a CBFC certificate. He refused, suggesting that the organisers seek an exemption instead. The matter was sorted out quickly when the organisers sought and obtained an exemption from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Says Kak: "Not only is the requirement of a CBFC certificate for film festivals illogical, it is discriminatory, as foreign films screened in film festivals in India are exempt from this rule."

The current controversy reflects a long-standing demand of independent film-makers that the government revoke the clause that requires censorship certificates for Indian films for screening at film festivals. Says Subasri Krishnan, a film-maker who is part of the Campaign Against Censorship: "The MIFF was one of the few official spaces for documentary films to be shown. While creating alternative spaces for documentary films, it is important to hold on to existing ones." Says Roy: "We need to evolve a consensus within the film-making fraternity on how to handle the question of censorship. There are other methods of determining the date of completion of a film. The organisers of film festivals could devise a system in which film-makers registered their films and got reference numbers for their dates of completion. Asking for a CBFC certificate does not make any sense."

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