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As Free As Can Be

Friday, March 20, 2015
By Deepa Gahlot

Being the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is not an easy job. In a strange atmosphere where many people are quick to take offence, and another, equally vocal section is against any curbs on artistic freedom, the CBFC is caught between a rock and a hard place, so to say.

The anti-censor lobby in the Hindi film industry is growing louder, and they have a common ‘enemy’ in Pahlaj Nihalani, who asked for trouble and ridicule when he released a list of words that cannot be used in films, which, oddly enough, included Bombay—as if the old name of Mumbai is a profanity.  His threat to clamp down on the industry of which he is a part, became a catalyst in uniting the usually self-centered Bollywood community to come together and fight attempts to impose stringent guidelines against violence and sex. The industry has often made a case for self-censorship, but going by what is inflicted on the audience whenever a CBFC committee or head is lax, that is hardly an option.

There is also a suggestion to have more ratings for the Board to use to certify rather than censor films, but who is going to ensure that films not meant for children will not be watched by them?

Also, the fight against censorship mixes up the political against the vulgar and morally offensive. So while all right-thinking individuals would want to have the freedom to express their political views, they are the first to express shock or disgust whenever a film crosses the line of decency.

It’s not as if films are censored or banned only in India. According to a report in The Independent, UK, dated June 2011, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) took the rare step of refusing outright to classify a film called The Human Centipede II, which was rejected for DVD with a warning that the horror movie could inflict psychological harm upon viewers. Examiners found that the film, a sequel to the 18-rated Human Centipede, about a mad scientist who grafts three kidnap victims together, was "rotten" all the way through.

According to the report, The BBFC has defended its ban of The Human Centipede II. "There is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience.”

In the US, the Motion Picture Association of America established a ratings system in 1968. The Classification & Ratings Administration (CARA) hosts the rating board made up of an independent group of parents. CARA’s mission is to provide parents the tools they need to make informed decisions about what their children watch. (From the MPAA website).  While MPAA membership is voluntary, all seven major Hollywood studios submit their films to its rating board. Most cineplex chains, retail giants, and home-video chains only show films that have an MPAA rating. Films that are not rated are not shown in any MPAA-affiliated theatres. In many markets, adults have little or no access to NC-17 or non-rated films.

The debate will never end, but we can hope that Indian society moves towards a level or maturity where filmmakers draw their own boundaries, and not misuse their freedom of expression.

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