Does film censorship hamper artistic freedom? [Debate]

A recently concluded meet at Mumbai regarding reforms in Central Board of Film Certification, chaired by Leela Samson and the suggestions that came out of it, prompted nextGen India team to take up the question of film censorship. We posed the question “Is censorship in films hampering artistic freedom?” for the nextGen Debate on 24 June 2011.

From engineers to medical students, and people directly related to the craft of film making our panelists included film enthusiasts from all walks of life to get the broader picture on censorship from perspectives of both makers as well as audience. Our panel included Amreet Khanal who is an aeronautical engineer, Rahul Agarwal – a medical student, Subhankar Mazumdar, a marketing professional and filmmaker from Calcutta. We were also joined by Rahul Sharma as a guest panelist.
Among our panelists, Rahul Agarwal was in favour of the motion while Amreet and Subhankar took a stand against it. Rahul Sharma enjoyed the middle ground. Subhankar started the debate saying that film is a soft medium and it affects millions in their emotional domain. There are issues, like communal remarks or communal issues, which can lead to social carnage if not controlled in proper monitoring. Amreet referred to the 1952 Cinematograph act which according to him allowed ideas of good artistic display on the panorama of Indian cinema. Rahul A opined that life is not all soft and the crudeness of the realities of life must be explored sans any censorship on screen.

The debate moved on to the definition of censorship and whether it bordered on being moral policing. The question that lingered was whether a select few people in a committee have the right to decide for a diverse audience what is fit for the screen.

In this context Subhankar quoted a Supreme Court ruling on film censorship:
Film censorship becomes necessary because a film motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have a strong impact on the minds of the viewers and can affect emotions. Therefore, it has as much potential for evil as it has for good and has an equal potential to instill or cultivate violent or good behaviour. It cannot be equated with other modes of communication. Censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary.

Rahul raised a very important question. Despite rules and Supreme Court decrees, politically motivated bans on films are in practice in India. Examples of Water, Parzania, Aandhi and Fanaa were raised in the discussion.

The panel was unanimous in the view that sexually charged films do face the brunt at CBFC, sometimes unnecessarily. Subhankar said we cannot take the liberty of artistic freedom and stoop the art to levels of pornography. The need of the moderation was essential agreed Rahul, but could deleting scenes be helpful in keeping such materials away from audience in the age of internet? He was echoed by audience member Tarun who felt, even if some scenes appear extremely unsuitable for audience as a whole, instead of cutting those scenes, a grading process, allowing the film to be viewed by an audience of suitable age, would be a better solution. This found support in the panel.

Our audience was very responsive yesterday. Yousuf, brought in a new angle to the debate with his suggestion that censorship encourages piracy and affects business of film making. Tarun opined that people are too happy in India to jump the gun and go on a protest. Their sensitivities are hurt very easily. Would it have been possible to make Schindler’s List without the gory scenes of concentration camps pondered Rahul. Sunny went to an extent of saying India is a nation of contradictions, here we have freedom to choose a leader at 18 but cannot watch films according to our choice. Azhar questioned the need to censor films since pornography was easily accessible.

The panel also examined the charge whether our censor board was selectively stringent. What came out of this round of talks was an affirmation of the question. Sex, religious issues, alternate sexuality are the major victims of censorship while even the most insipid item songs pass the scissors. This has a direct correlation with business Amreet suggested, since masala is an integral part of business.

The debate reached conclusion with a brainstorming session over a comment from audience member Aagan:

“Recently a film Gandu made by a director Q was screened at a film festival in Berlin. The audience could not tolerate the crudeness of the sex portrayed in the film (it had frontal nudity and scenes of masturbation) and walked out of the theatre. Do you feel, such maturity lacks in the Indian audience? Would the reaction have been same in a village in Bihar?”

The panel agreed to this proposition that Indian audience was not mature enough to handle such radical contents in films. To prevent untoward effects emanating from screening of films with “controversial” content, a regulatory authority needs to exist. However, instead of censoring scenes, the body must work towards gradation and certification of films sans any political interference so that they do not appear to be wielding the stick on the audience.
On that note, the debate was closed by the moderator.