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A Reasonable Restriction

Bollywood is often referred to as the most significant movie industry of the world, with the most substantial movie output on an annual basis. Dangal (2016) and the Bahubali franchise are some of the more recent, highest grossing movies. As of 2017, an annual output of almost 1986 feature films of all languages is believed to be produced in this industry based in Mumbai. Bruce Michael Boyd in his paper titled Film Censorship in India: “Reasonable Restriction” on Freedom of Speech and Expression has remarked that “film censorship in India is one of the strictest in the world." And the years have only solidified his statement. The controversy over the movie Padmavat is a prime example. The film was based on history, and the cast and crew were endlessly harassed by a minority group that felt offended at this 'disrespectful' depiction of what they considered to be ‘their’ history. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director of the movie, was slapped in public by people belonging to the Karni Sena, and death threats were also issued against the cast by the same sect. This is one of the more recent reminders of how controversy can be created around a work of fiction.

Censorship is recommended by the Constitution of India and is, therefore, a legal practice. One of the earliest movies in the history of Indian cinema to be banned from the public was Gokul Shankar, back in 1963. The film dealt with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and depicted the psychological motivations behind Nathuram Godse's actions. It was banned based on the prediction that it would upset the public. The suppressing of certain movies to avoid widespread controversy may be regarded as an acceptable reason, but how far does this curtail the medium of cinema in the country? And it remains to be mentioned how this clause, is often conveniently used by the ruling political party, more often than not, directed towards their propaganda. The movie Kissa Kursi Ka (1978) is an excellent example of this. The film was a social satire and a political spoof on the Emergency rule declared by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. It was directed by Amrit Nahata, a member of the Indian Parliament at the time, and was met with a violent reception from the Congress Party. Every existing copy was burnt, and eventually, the movie had to be remade with an entirely different cast. The new version of the film starred Shabana Azmi, Raj Kiran and Utpal Dutt. Dominant political parties that can potentially be elected as the central authority of power and governance in the country have also turned towards violence to express their dissent.

The Constitutional Clause

The central body that is charged with regulating movie censorship in India is the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Though different regional bodies initially conducted censorship, they were brought together and centralised to form the CBFC. The CBFC acts according to the principles stated in the Cinematograph Act, 1952. The legal clause says that a film can be publicly exhibited in India only after it receives a certification from the Board. If the CBFC refuses to certify a movie, it would be automatically banned from public viewing. There are four types of certification that the Board can accord to a film. 'U' or universal denotes that there are no restrictions on public viewing. The 'A' certificate implies that the movie is restricted to an adult audience. The 'U/A' certification is issued to convey that the movie is open to children below the age of twelve, subject to parental guidance. The 'S' certification is relatively more obscure and restricted to specific audiences like doctors and other professionals. Certification is accorded by the subject matter of the movie and how the said subject is depicted. Antisocial activities with the depiction of glorified acts of violence, or criminal activities that can invite offence are taken into consideration while providing the certification. Scenes that glorify smoking and drinking are banned. Racial contempt or problematic communal issues are also not tolerated.

The laws which govern the censorship of movies in India are meticulously detailed, which can adversely affect the authenticity of a film. If a story unravelling on screen is subjected to being accountable for every frame, it changes the flow of the narrative. The CBFC takes note of the problematic scenes and suggests cuts on certain scenes. Sometimes the cuts are so elaborate that the creative freedom of movies as a medium of authentic storytelling is severely compromised. The CBFC suggests cuts even on films certified fit only for adult audiences, which compromises the story and the tone that the film seeks to establish. Under the ruse of avoiding content that goes against the Indian ethos, the CBFC seems to reestablish the existing ideas of Indian culture without introducing or tolerating, any new views in the picture. In addition to this, there seems to be a tendency to underestimate the intelligence and intellectual capacity of an adult audience. The belief that teenage viewers easily emulate smoking in films is what has prompted the CBFC to include a warning. But a mandatory 'No Smoking’ sign every single time a character is shown smoking a cigarette is perhaps not necessary. And the inclusion of the repeated warnings in movies rated 'A' is also not strictly required. A 'No Smoking’ warning popping up on screen in an 'A' rated movie implies that the audience watching is so gullible that they would all take to smoking, not paying attention to the serious hazard it poses to one's health.

Biased Censorship

There are several instances of movie bans in India and many reasons why a particular movie was not to be shown to the public. But are the constitutional statuettes always followed in detail while taking such decisions? Political bias has always been a basis upon which a movie has been allowed or denied release. The hit movie Aandhi released in the year 1975, directed by Gulzar, is a perfect example of this. Controversy arose when the idea that Suchitra Sen's character in the movie, Aarti Devi, who was depicted smoking and drinking on screen was based on Mrs Indira Gandhi. The ruling Congress Party banned it during the period of Emergency. The idea that people might perceive this similarity and apply the plot of the story to the life of Mrs Gandhi led to the movie never being released even after cuts. It was finally released during the regime of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who had something to gain from such an association forming in people’s minds.

The social aspect behind a movie ban covers a wide range of topics, violence being one of them. Violence is never desirable, and there seems to be an ongoing idea that identifies violence in movies as a catalyst to violence in real society. Paanch (2003) was a crime thriller written and directed by Anurag Kashyap, starring Kay Kay Menon and Aditya Srivastava. The film was loosely based on the Joshi-Abhyankar serial killing case in Pune and was perceived by the CBFC to be glorifying violence and drugs. So many cuts were suggested that the movie was ultimately never released. The social dimension also includes the depiction of sexuality. While vulgarity should have been the problem, item numbers in Bollywood movies with offensive lyrics and vulgar dancing do not seem to affect the CBFC much. But the depiction of sensuality and the tackling of any sexual subject in the plot is one of the critical factors that put off the folks of the Certification Board. The movie Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996) associated with Mira Nair, for example, was banned because of its sexual content. The irony lies in the fact that the Indian culture and ethos that the laws seem to be guarding is precisely what produced the movie. The 'Kama Sutra' is an ancient Indian text that deals extensively with sexual matters. This clearly shows that it is not the old values that we hold close to heart, but the perception of them today, coloured with the stuffiness of western thought from the colonial era.

If sexual content is banned, it stands to reason that movies with homosexual relationships are also frowned upon by the people at CBFC. The movie Fire (1996) directed by Nandita Das, depicted a same-sex relationship between two characters who were sisters-in-law, played by Shabana Azmi and Das herself, and was predictably banned. The homosexual relationship between two women got in the way of a beautiful story from finding an audience. The movie Pink Mirror (2003) was another movie which was banned for homosexual content. This is a severe curtailing of the function that movies play in society. From all this, we can conclude that censorship in movies is utilised mainly by the powers that be. Curtailed by the authorities of censorship, films in India seem to be forced to cater to the dominant ideas and ideology without pushing the boundaries of human thought and widening the horizons of people’s intellect and tolerance. The essence of movies as a focal point of propagating positivity and understanding by pushing the definitive boundaries is therefore lost.

Possibilities of Change

The state today is not entirely dismal, however, and there is a distant hope of change as the times turn. Progressive movies like Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) have been allowed release and its strong feminist content has been applauded. This additionally shows a change in the perception of such movies among the educated audience. And a film like Aligarh (2015) with homosexual content has also been accepted and even liked, albeit not without its controversies. Movies that take an alternative route from the mainstream ideas explore new themes that are considered taboo and help widen the horizons of those watching. Movies help marginal ideas come to the forefront; bring to attention stories that are often relegated to the background. These are the kind of stories that people need to see to realise the real potential of movies.

The ousting of Nihilani from the CBFC seems to have helped kick off the possibility of a broader change in the picture. With the baton being passed on to Prasoon Joshi, who has an impressive track record of being associated with the right side of Bollywood cinema, there is hope that movie censorship will be appropriately regulated and in a manner that juggles both the ethnicity of India while also allowing more considerable social discussion through the business of movie making.


Bhowmik, S. (2003). From Coercion to Power Relations: Film Censorship in Post Colonial India. Economic and Political Weekly, 38 (30). 3148-3152. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4413826

Boyd, B. (1972) Film censorship in India: a “Reasonable Restriction” on freedom of speech and expression. Journal of the Indian Law Institute, 14 (4), 501-561. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43950156

List of films banned in India. (n.d.). In Retrieved on August 5, 2018 from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_banned_in_India

Image credit: AxomLive

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Written By Ishita Sen

A student of English literature with confused clarity.

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