Indian Filmmakers Call for Overhaul of "Outdated" Censorship System

Jignesh Panchal
'Lipstick Under My Burkha'

After a series of public embarrassments, consensus has emerged that India’s film review board, which is based on legislation from the 1950s, needs to change.

From James Bond to Bollywood to indie cinema, a growing number of films has been battling India’s censorship board lately, sparking a series of social media frenzies. The imbroglios range from the shortening of Daniel Craig’s kissing scenes with Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux in Spectre to the unprecedented 89 cuts demanded for Abhishek Chaubey’s Bollywood drug drama, Udta Punjab. And in several cases, the public backlash to the request for cuts has ended in embarrassment for censors.

The producers of the latter film took the matter to the Bombay High Court, which ultimately overruled the board’s demands, clearing the film with just one cut — a scene where the lead character urinates on a crowd while under the influence of drugs.

Alankrita Shrivastava fought a similar battle after the board refused to grant a screening certificate to her feminist drama, Lipstick Under My Burkha, alleging that it was too “lady oriented” and contained “abusive words, audio pornography.” Shrivastava filed an appeal with the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, which also ultimately overruled the board and cleared Lipstick with an A, or adult rating equivalent to NC-17, after voluntary edits were made that mostly involved sex scenes.

"The censor board shouldn’t be like a moral guardian saying, ‘You can’t watch this,’” says Shrivastava. “People can vote in India. If they have the power to choose their leader, why don’t they have the power to choose the type of films they want to watch?”

The problems at India’s Central Board of Film Certification aren’t particularly surprising, given that the organization adheres to the Cinematograph Act of 1952, which is considered severely outdated and in need of an overhaul. In 2016, India’s central government formed a committee headed by veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal to prescribe revised norms for certification more in tune with international standards. Among the committee’s various proposals: scrapping the CBFC’s current system of suggesting edits and cuts, and limiting the board to acting only as a film certification body “whose scope is restricted to categorizing the suitability of the film to audience groups on the basis of age and maturity.” If taken up, the reform would likely result in the implementation of a wider ratings system, as most major moviegoing nations around the world employ. The report is still to be tabled in Parliament for final approval before its recommendations can be implemented.

Meanwhile, showdowns over the censorship board’s actions rage on. In April, filmmaker Amol Palekar filed a petition in the Indian Supreme Court challenging that pre-censorship was a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, both for filmmakers and the public. “Rules have to change to match the present day, when the internet and social media dominate,” Palekar stated in his petition, adding: “When content on television and the internet is free of censorship, the same content being altered, cut or deleted before being shown in a cinema hall is an attack on our right to equality.” The case is still being heard.

This story first appeared in the May 22 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.