Shyam Benegal Committee: CBFC can only certify films, not recommend cuts

NEW DELHI: In recommendations that are bound to stir a major debate among moralists and others, a government-appointed committee has said that no alterations or changes in any film can be made by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) only with the consent of the rights holder.

The members of the Shyam Benegal Committee were of the ‘unanimous view that the rights owner has complete rights over his/her film.’

In its report submitted to the Information and Broadcasting ministry on 26 April 2016 but placed on the ministry’s website now, the Committee has said that there should be no system of imposing excisions (as is practiced at present) and the CBFC must transition into solely becoming a film certification body, as indeed the name of the institution suggests.

The Committee is of the view that it is not for the CBFC to act as a moral compass by deciding what constitutes glorification or promotion of an issue or otherwise. The scope of the CBFC should largely only be to decide who and what category of audiences can watch the depiction of a particular theme, story, scene etc., unless the film in question violates the provisions of Section 5B(1) of the Cinematograph Act 1952 or exceeds the limitations defined in the highest category of certification recommended by this committee.

In both such cases, the CBFC would be within its rights to reject certification to a film, but not authorized to dictate excisions, modifications and amendments. The CBFC categorization should be a sort of statutory warning to audiences of what to expect if they were to watch a particular film once the CBFC has issued this statutory warning. ‘Film viewing is a consensual act and up to the viewers of that category,’ the Committee felt.

The Committee had been constituted by the government on New Year’s Day this year to suggest a paradigm that ensures that artistic creativity and freedom do not get stifled /curtailed even as films are certified. Noting that “in most countries of the world there is a mechanism/process of certifying feature films and documentaries”, an official release had said that the attempt should also be that “the people tasked with the work of certification understand these nuances”.

The Committee had been asked to recommend broad guidelines / procedures under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act 1952 / Rules for the benefit of the chairperson and other members of the Screening Committee. The staffing pattern of CBFC was also to be looked into in an effort to recommend a framework which would provide efficient / transparent user friendly services.

The other members of the Committee include filmmakers Goutam Ghose, Kamal Haasan and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, creative director Piyush Pandey, media veteran Bhawana Somayya, Nina Lath Gupta who is managing director of the National Film Development Corporation, and Joint Secretary (Films) Sanjay Murthy as Member Convenor.

This is not the first time that such a committee has been set up. After earlier attempts, the last committee that examined similar issues was headed by the eminent Mukul Mudgal. However, no action has been taken on that report submitted in 2013.

The present Guidelines issued in 1991 are general in categorization and therefore prone to ambiguity in interpretation. The committee recommended that Guidelines need to be drafted for each category of certification. While doing so, the Committee has taken into consideration all the issues of concern listed in the 1991 Guidelines and included them in the recommended Guidelines as well.

The committee said the principle objectives of guidelines should be to ensure that the content viewed by potentially vulnerable audiences (including children) is suitable for their viewing, and by making such categorizations, empower consumers to make informed viewing choices.

Simultaneously, the guidelines are also aimed at ensuring that the artistic expression and creative freedom of filmmakers are protected through objectively laid down parameters for certification that do not attempt to act as a moral compass on what should or should not be shown to audiences, but endeavour to specify the category of audiences that are deemed fit to watch a film, given its content.

The Committee therefore said that at least two of the objectives of censorship listed in the Guidelines – ‘clean and healthy entertainment’ and ‘of aesthetic value’ - are not within the ambit of the CBFC - as a film certification body, it is not responsible for ensuring the aesthetic composition of a film or for "clean and healthy entertainment".

The Committee believes that the objective that a film should be responsible and sensitive to the realms of society is a subjective clause and should be avoided, as there is no definition of what constitutes the values and standards of society at a given point of time. The insertion of clauses that are open to varying interpretations would only render the process of certification more difficult and open to controversy. As an alternative to this clause, an attempt has therefore been made by the committee to lay down a ceiling for the highest category of certification, beyond which the CBFC can refuse certification.

The Committee examined the need for a separate rating for films with explicit scenes of sex, violence etc. While internationally there is no separate rating for such films, and they invariably get an R or 17+ rating, such films carry a line to the effect that the film has extreme nudity or violence, as the case may be.

But since a similar approach would not be effective in India, the Committee was of the view that the categories need to be extended. This would release the current ‘pressure cooker situation’ of filmmakers needing to cater to the demands of a certain section of the audience for financial gain through insertion of such sequences but having no avenues to showcase the same except through suggestive sequences in films.

The committee also agreed that in the present context, unlike in the past, there are no specific timings during which a certain kind of cinema would enjoy playtime. Thus, in contrast to previous times when adult-rated films with explicit scenes were normally showcased as late night shows, in the digital era nothing stops anyone from viewing any content at any time

In this scenario, having an A-c rating (A with Caution) would help audiences to make distinct choices, prevent the insertion of suggestive sequences in films that would otherwise be classified as Universal viewing and also facilitate the business of film by being available for viewing at all times but restricted strictly to adult audiences.

Under new guidelines framed by the Committee, a filmmaker would have to specify the category in which he feels the film would go.

The objective of the guidelines framed by the Committee would be to ensure that:
a. Children and adults are protected from potentially harmful or otherwise unsuitable content:
b. Audiences, particularly parents and those with responsibility for children are empowered to make informed viewing decisions;
c. Artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed in the process of classification of films;
d. The process of certification by CBFC is responsive, at all times, to social change.

In view of this, the Committee felt that the categories UA and A need to further sub-divided.

The UA category should be divided into sub-categories of UA 12+ and UA 15+ under the CBFC Rules. The Committee recommended this in light of the sociological changes that have occurred since the introduction of the Cinematograph Act in 1952. While UA l2+ caters to young teenagers who are yet to be exposed to the adult world and can therefore be exposed to adult issues in only a minimal manner, UA 15+ seeks to keep in mind that young adolescents are at an age when they are being introduced to the adult world, and are ready to be exposed to various concerns and issues of the adult world, albeit in a moderate manner.

It has also been recommended that the Adult category be further divided into A and A-C (Adult with Caution) sub-categories. The objective of this sub-categorization is to enable adults to make informed choices about the kind of film they would like to watch. Not all adults prefer to watch films that have explicit portrayals of various issues such as violence, sex, discrimination, use of language etc. The purpose of the A-C category is to warn audiences of the explicit depiction of various issues, thus enabling them to make a considered choice.

Films that violate the provisions of Section 5B(1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952 will not be considered for certification.

Films submitted for telecast on television or for any other purpose should be re-certified.

The committee has made it clear that any complaints received by the central government should be referred to the CBFC whose chairperson may, if he considers it necessary to do so, refer the film to a revising committee for examination once again in view of alleged violation of Section 5B(1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952.

In order to preserve Indian Cinema, the committee recommends that every applicant should deposit the Director’s Cut in the National Film Archives of India for preservation. At present, only the certified version is submitted but the committee felt that the original will 'truly reflect the cinematic history of Indian cinema.

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