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We need to redefine and resurrect contours of individual freedoms: Palekar

Ranjita Ganesan / Mumbai 29 Apr 17 | 08:21 PM

Amol Palekar

Amol Palekar, filmmaker and actor, speaks to Ranjita Ganesan about his recent filing of a public interest litigation in the apex court against the pre-censorship of films. 

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You have previously fought censorship several times. What were those experiences like? 

I have always followed the principle of “live and let live". I like to be a patient listener to the other’s opinion; similarly I do not like to be gagged by anyone. This seemingly simple formula has however erupted many confrontations. 

My first encounter with censorship was when the Maharashtra Stage Scrutiny Board wished to ban my Marathi play ‘Avadhya’. After a prolonged fight, I was granted an “A" certificate to perform without cuts. Later in 1973 my other Marathi play ‘Vasanakand’ was banned by the Maharashtra government. Same good old grounds of “morality" and “possible law & order situation" were flashed for both. No such apprehended situation was caused after the performances. 

In 1975, CBFC had objected to the “thematic content" of my Hindi film ‘Daayara’. The Board offered an “A" certificate plus demanded some cuts. My films ‘Thaang' & ‘Quest’ were bilingual versions of a story depicting man-woman relationships against the backdrop of homosexuality. In 2007, CBFC cleared the English version with an “A" certificate but recommended banning the Marathi version. This ridiculous situation was an eye opener to the regressive mindset of the CBFC. One of the members actually told me that the sensibilities of English-speaking audience is different from that of Marathi-speaking audience; hence the Marathi audience needed to be more protected. When I requested them to give me the ban-order in writing, they backed off fearing a legal action. 

What encouraged you to pursue the route of questioning the very Constitutional validity of the Cinematograph Act of 1952? 

Thanks to Sandhya Gokhale, my lawyer wife, who told me long back that unless the constitutional validity of certain provisions of the said Act are challenged, individual filmmakers will continue to face curtailment of artistic freedom. In light of new technologies and developments, considering the paradigm shift in the mass media, it’s the need of the hour that we redefine, reclaim and resurrect contours of our individual freedoms. Law must adapt itself to cope with new situations if it has to satisfy human needs and to meet the contemporary problems of life. 

How do you legally establish this changing scenario in your petition?

In the matter of K.A.ABBAS v/s UNION OF INDIA (1970), a five-judge bench of the SC ruled that cinematographic films in theaters were the most influential media of mass communication affecting the social mind so exercise of censorship under the said Act was valid and necessary. The social situation based on which that decision was given has changed to such an extent that the decision needs to be overruled by a larger bench of the SC. Today modern technology makes dissemination of information possible in real time through various media, many of which are either not regulated or if regulated, not subject to pre-censorship. 

In 1980, Doordarshan was the only public service broadcaster. Now we have over 800 registered television channels, 1000s of local cable channels, and over 780 million TV viewers. By June 2017, the number of internet users shall reach about 450 million. With the onslaught of television and internet, we are increasingly “interfacing" with cultural data encoded in the digital form. It’s no longer the “cinema" but “the digitised world" which is the 21st Century media machine binding the universe. The direct corollary of this is that if the content presented/exhibited/uploaded on either of these avenues is free of censorship or pre-censorship, what is the rationale behind the same content getting cut/altered/deleted and thereby censored when and if exhibited in a cinema hall? This amounts to discrimination barred by Article 14 of our Constitution. 

What is your view on the Act’s implementation since 1970?

Since the decision in Abbas, the power of certification as a means of pre-censorship has been subject to large scale abuse owing to lack of clear guidelines on how the power is to be exercised. As a result, the CBFC routinely demands cuts of scenes or dialogue failing which it denies certificates to films for arbitrary reasons: Remove “Maan ki Baat" from a dialogue; get NOC from the PM’s office for the film title “Modi Kaa Gaon"; the film is unsuitable for release since “the story is lady oriented, has audio pornography", among others. Milder abusive words were demanded to be cut from many films whereas Parched, Saat Uchakkey, Udta Punjab were cleared with an “A" certificate without any cuts. On 31/07/2015, the CEO of CBFC informed the board about audit observations made by the CAG on working of CBFC. He said that “the audit of 2014-15 had observed that CBFC converted 172 “A" films into “UA", and 166 “UA" films into “U" during 2012-15, without taking any law or provision into account. It had also observed that there were inconsistencies in the time taken by CBFC for issue of certificates to various producers." 

The Aurangabad High Court recently set another worse precedent which was not challenged by the producers of the film “Jolly LLB". After the certification of the said film by CBFC, the Hon’ble bench demanded four cuts in a scene citing possible “defamation to the judiciary?. Till now judiciary has played the role of a saviour of citizens’ fundamental rights. With this decision, one more predator of artistic freedom has emerged which needs to be seriously scrutinised. 

Amendments to the Act were earlier prescribed by the Mudgal Committee and last year, by the Shyam Benegal Committee. What is your opinion on those recommendations, and why they haven’t been implemented yet? 

The Mudgal Committee Recommendations did not go many miles away from the actual Act however, the Benegal Committee Report is an outcome of a very serious study of the present legal provisions, changed social scenario, filmmakers’ demands etc. Their recommendations are apt. They suggested qualifications for members of the CBFC at all levels. They proposed increased number of categories for the certificates. They reworded the guidelines which are supposed to direct members during decision-making. The most significant recommendation was that the board should not have the power to demand cuts. Probably the present government does not like this last recommendation so the they are still not implemented. 

Has the unrevised Cinematograph Act and the functioning of CBFC affected the quality of cinema in the country? 

I have heard many directors and producers objecting to some scenes in the script which they think will never be able to survive the CBFC. Their worst fear is that they will be given an “A" certificate which has direct, immediate commercial consequences. Revenue generation from ticket sales gets slashed as entire potential audience below 18 years is forbidden to see the film. The satellite rights cannot be sold unless the film removes the objectionable portions and gets a “U" or “UA" certification. The fact that at the level of scripting, the filmmakers consider these potential dangers, it certainly affects their creativity and their creation. Certification process is an example of the old adage, “process itself is the punishment." 

From being an alternative space for banned films to release, the Internet has become a host for original content and films too. Would the fact that the digitised world is now an influential form of mass communication make a case for certification of content meant for the Internet? 

Despite so many faux pas, the government is steadfastly supporting Pahlaj Nihalani which confirms the government du jour’s consent to his actions. Bringing Internet under the scanner will be a logical progression considering the direction we are marching towards. North Korea, China, Cuba, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia ... we will be in the auspicious company of countries where Internet content is under the radar. That day will be a doomsday for every Indian but that day won?t rise... somehow my intrinsic faith tells me so. 

What is your expectation with regard to the outcomes of your petition? 

It is a long process. I hope some kind of an effective interim relief will be passed which will have an immediate impact. Ultimately my petition will have to go before a constitutional bench consisting of seven judges. I sincerely hope that the same will be decided in my life time. 

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