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India Censor Board Accused of Overstepping

Variety logo Variety 5/18/2017 Naman Ramachandran
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Irrational censorship continues to be the bane of Indian cinema and it shows no sign of abating. Srijit Mukherji’s April 14 release “Begum Jaan,” the tale of a brothel caught on the India-Pakistan border during partition in 1947, was forced to cut a sex scene by half and mute several swear words and still received an Adult certificate for its pains. In February, Alankrita Shrivastava’s “Lipstick Under My Burkha,” which has won awards at the Tokyo and Glasgow fests, among others, was denied a theatrical release certificate.The letter sent to “Lipstick” producer Prakash Jha from India’s Central Board of Film Certification stated: “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contanious [sic] sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused.”

Jha appealed to the country’s Film Certification Appellate Tribunal and got the CBFC decision overruled with some cuts and passed with an Adult certificate.

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“There cannot be any embargo on a film being women-oriented or containing sexual fantasies and expression of the inner desires of women,” the tribunal said in a statement.

“Patriarchy is systematically perpetuated in India, through the narrative of mainstream cinema,” says Shrivastava. “When a film challenges that dominant point of view, when a film refuses to objectify women, when a film considers the desire of women important, I think it scares the ‘guardians’ of our films, the CBFC.”

Adds Mukherji, “What makes it unfortunate is that the suggestions are on the basis of the aesthetics and perceptions of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ as per the members of that particular jury, which was a random selection. And there is no way one can reason with something so subjective as that.”

Shrivastava says that films should be certified for category and the rest should be left to the audience. Mukherji echoes her and adds, “India is a diverse country where over the years the propensity to get offended has exponentially increased, but still cinematic laissez-faire is the only way out of this inconsistent and oppressive paradigm of cinematic policing.”

In March 2015, India’s Minister of State for Information & Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore had said, “We want film certification to be content-based. We want the certification board to be a certification board.” He went on to constitute an expert committee headed by veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal to recommend guidelines for certification of films by the CBFC.

The committee submitted its report in April 2016 and recommended that the CBFC “must function only as a film certification body.” A 1991 addition to the 1952 Indian Cinematograph Act states that a film will not be certified if it is against decency or morality. The committee states that deciding this should not be in the mission of the CBFC and drafted a new set of guidelines stating that “artistic expression and creative freedom of filmmakers is protected through parameters that are objective; audiences are empowered to make informed viewing decisions; and the process of certification is responsive to social change.”

A year after the committee’s 2016’s guidelines were announced, and they are yet to be implemented. Variety’s requests for an interview any representative of the CBFC did not receive any response. Meanwhile, the body continues to wreak havoc. The censorship decisions for “The Fate of the Furious” include deletion of women gyrating their hips and low camera angle shots of a woman in a short skirt. Some filmmakers have refused to subject their films to cuts, including Woody Allen with “Blue Jasmine” and David Fincher with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Those films were not released in India.

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