Can one even imagine the way Supreme Court’s judgement waiving the ban of several states on the release of Padmavat humiliates and even ignores the very existence of the Censor Board? The Board has been on the receiving end of flak for several years now which intensified during the tenure of the much-maligned Pehlaj Nihalani as head. Now that the erudite, suave and sophisticated Prasoon Joshi is at the helm, even he must have been surprised that a mere outpouring of spontaneous violence by a Right wing Hindu party that calls itself Karni Sena can over-rule its decision in a democracy. Let us see what kind of jokers they were made into across time.

Perhaps Viacom, the producer of Padmavat and other associates including Sanjay Leela Bhansali are celebrating this ‘victory’ without quite realising that this is furthering a wrong precedent for both the CBFC and filmmakers across the country.

If every second filmmaker has to run to the Supreme Court to get his/her filmmaker released despite the CBFC’s existence across different cities and regional boards, then one wonders why the CBFC is there at all. The bench, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, ordered in favour of the Padmaavat makers.“Creative freedom, freedom of speech and expression can’t be guillotined... artistic freedom has to be protected,” the bench, also comprising Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud, said.

But why and how does the concept of control operate in a democracy? Today, anyone it seems, can form a group to get his/her one-minute of fame in a sensation-hungry media and raise its voice literally though not ideologically, use actual muscle power to make noise about nothing and let the censor board go to hell with mud on its face!

In an ambience of political control veiled as democracy, Someswar Bhowmick’s Cinema and Censorship – The Politics of Control in India is a landmark work on the politics of control. The word ‘control’ links itself to a dictatorial form of order, where the citizen’s right to freedom of expression is not denied, it does not exist. So, why and how does the concept of control operate in a democracy?

Bhowmick raises a very relevant and topical question - why censorship that functioned mainly as an instrument of political and informative control during the British rule should sustain for more than six decades after Independence in the world’s largest democracy producing the largest number of films in the world?

Veteran Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (1999) wrote, “In a dictatorship, censorship is used; in a democracy, manipulation.” Though this was with reference to Western experience and sensibilities, for the Indian reader, it would apply equally well to the climate that sustains in film censorship in India.

In 2018, we are not talking of ‘control’ but of absolute banning of a creative form of art for the entertainment of the masses that takes a ‘historical legend’ as its narrative base and works it into a full-length feature film of magnanimous dimensions. The states that have banned the release of the film have not seen the film at all. So, now, they can simply ignore / overrule a body like CBFC and so exactly what they want. What do they want? They are self-appointed ‘historians’ of the state and upkeepers of ‘tradition, pride, honour, culture and history.’

How ‘expert’ are the members of the Karni Sena and the officiating public leaders of the respective states to ban the release of any given film in a democratic state? Are they qualified enough to pass judgement – positive or negative, on the impact of a film on the society? Are they free of vested interests for or against the passing of a film? Are they dedicated to their work as members since it is an unpaid and time-consuming exercise?

The Supreme Court, while clearing Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen (stalled earlier by the Delhi High Court) passed strictures against the censors’ interpretation of the censor code, which, it observed, was out of tune with the times. Note the phrase “out of tune with the times.” Is the stance taken by the powers-that-be who banned the release of the film not ‘out of tune with the times?’

This is nothing new. CBFC’s power was rendered null and void in the face of interference by the Supreme Court offering as example, Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) that conceded the “ultimate censorious power” of the people over the CBFC without mentioning “the parameters and procedure for the expression of this people’s power.”

The operation of the CBFC is not above board. Bodies such as the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) and Review Committee can easily over-rule the refusal of a certificate to a given film as the FCAT did in the case of Maficha Sakshidar (1986) a Marathi film dealing with the sensational killings of the Joshi-Abhyankar families in Pune.

How does one explain Raj Kapoor who coolly got away with exposing Mandakini’s breasts in Ram Teri Ganga Maili while D-Grade films like Bistar, Dozakh, Bedroom Story and Bombay Town are refused certificates? Derek Bose rightly says, “Worse than these peep shows are puerile stuff like Naseeb Apna Apna which condones bigamy and Aurat which boasts of several revolting scenes of rape and violence. The CBFC could do nothing about it because the producers argued that it is not violence but valour that is being portrayed in the interest of ‘creating social awareness’ and so on.”

The CBFC has been turned into a joke consisting of a panel of jokers by political powers-that-be in Delhi who often over-ruled a refusal or an “A” certificate just through a simple telephone call. N.S. Thapa was Regional Officer at the CBFC’s Mumbai office between 1972 and 1976.

When the Sholay case came up, the examining committee found it too violent and decided to grant it an “A” certificate with cuts. “Even before I reached the office, G.P. Sippy’s man was there asking for a withdrawal of the application,” recalls Thapa. “Next day, a top politician called to tell us to pass the film without referring it to the revising committee. We did not fight back because Virendra Vyas, who was then-Chairman of the CBFC, was a heart patient. I was shocked by the political interference in the work of the Board and returned to my original post at FD,” he summed up.

The CBFC is not the supreme authority. Its decision is often over-ruled by the administrative head of a given state including the centre. So, censored films are also stopped after they have obtained the certificate granting them the right to show their film in the theatres.

Take the example of Mrinal Sen’s Baishey Shravan. “In October 1960, I received a note marked ‘Immediate’ from the I & B Ministry. Baishey Sravan was partly based on the Bengal famine 1943. It had been invited to the London Film Festival. The ministry thought it would be in the fitness of things to remove all shots showing the protagonist, an incorrigible villager, using his fingers while eating. For this would, for sure, nauseate the sophisticated audience abroad. When I refused, the ministry stopped negotiating with me. I sent the print directly to the festival. Subsequently, I informed the ministry that nobody had felt sick during the screening. There was no nausea,” he laughs.