From Script to Screen: Navigating the Evolution of Censorship Laws In Film Content

Introduction

Censorship is usually misinterpreted as a synonym of restriction but this term is derived from the Latin word “censere” which means to give an opinion. Censorship is a wide phenomenon encompassing censorship of oral and written communications including movies, arts, music, magazines, books, plays, etc. In India, censorship has been criticized and debated over the years as a violation of freedom of speech and expression and India has one of the strictest laws on censorship of films all over the world. Still, it is a well-settled constitutional fact that Censorship of films also includes prior restraint is justified, as also held under the case of S. Rangarajan Vs. P. Jagjivan Ram. Censorship of film is not meant to restrict the message that a film is supposed to lay down through its content but to ensure that the right message is spread among the citizens. People can connect to movies emotionally and these works are exemplary to them. The state has the responsibility to ensure that people idealize the right and filter out the content that is not up to par.

Censorship Before Independence

The exhibition of movies started in 1896 in Bombay and subsequently India got its first film in 1912. As India was under British Rule, censorship was practiced but there was no codification for the same, they only restricted the films that could hamper their rule over India. Although, censorship was practiced but India got its formal codified law in 1918 as the Cinematography Act, 1918. The act empowered the provincial government to establish the authorities to censor and the Board of Censors was controlled by the British government. In 1927, an Indian Cinematographic Committee was set up to recommend the changes in the 1918 act and it was observed that the public exhibition of movies tended to increase the Western civilization and demoralize the Indian culture. However, there was no immediate response to the recommendations made by the committee and these observations were not taken into account before 1949: The Independence year of India.

Censorship After Independence

In the year 1948, the Censor Boards of Bombay and Madras provided “Production Codes” for the producers as a guide while making motion pictures, this was to ensure a healthy national life through the way of movies. After Independence many measures were taken to change the existing form of censorship acts in India, one such was the Cinematographic (Amendment) Act, of 1949 which created a two-layered age classification system

  • “A” certificate which restricted the film to adults above the age of eighteen years;
  • “U” certificate which meant the film was suitable for unrestricted public exhibition.

Also, this amendment act carried out the suggestions provided by the committee of 1927. After two years, a committee was set up to ensure the productivity of the existing act. The committee recommended establishing a statutory body known as the Film Council of India which will be empowered with regulatory and supervisory powers. A plethora of discrepancies accumulated due to various reports and recommendations and the organizational structure of film censorship was completed after the enactment of the Cinematographic Act, of 1952.

 Cinematographic Act, 1952

This act provides that the central government shall establish a Board of Film Censors comprising a chairman and 9 members. The board had to directly work under the central government by sending its reports annually. The central government provided the Board with a collection of rules and guidelines in 1958 for their institutional and operational works. Also, an advisory panel had to be established and will be appointed by the union government. This act provided stringent laws of action as the applicant was not even allowed to watch the screening of his content during the process and was only updated after the completion of the process. Even when the applicant was dissatisfied with the certification of the board, the last appeal lay with the central government. Even though the act provided a structural framework to the film censorship laws the whole power vested with the central government which could have attracted the politicization of film censorship. Therefore, the Khosla Committee was needed to prepare the recommendations and suggestions for the amendment purposes.

[Image Sources: shutterstock]

Censorship

Khosla Committee for Film Censorship

There was an enquiry committee set up in 1969 known as the Khosla Committee that had to submit its report to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The report was centered around the analysis and review of the Cinematography Act, 1952 and to provide accurate suggestions for the amendment. The committee recommended substantive legislation and urged a modification to then age classification system, here the committee wanted to protect and accept the moral norms set by the society and the children’s understanding of it. The proposed three-layered age classification system was:

(i)”U” – fit for universal exhibition including children of all ages, whether accompanied or unaccompanied by adults.

(ii)”G”- fit for universal exhibition but fit for children under the age of 16 only if they are accompanied by adults.

(iii) “A” – fit for adult audiences only. Children under the age of 16 will not be permitted to see these films even if they are accompanied by adults. Children between the ages of 16 and 18, if accompanied by their parents and guardians will, however, be permitted.

Also, the committee recommended the role of the judiciary in the Central Board of Film Censor and should not directly link the role of the union government. The committee gave effective arguments for the amendments.

Landmark Cases Related to Film Censorship

  • A. Abbas Vs. UOI: This case is marked as one of the strongest and landmark judgments in the area of film censorship and the first time observation of the active participation of the Judiciary in film censorship. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of pre-censorship and recognized censorship in the interest of morality and decency.
  • Rangaranjan Vs. P. Jagjivan Ram: The Supreme Court criticized the actions of the state to use censorship beyond the restriction grounds enlisted under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court reiterated that the censorship of films should and only be done on the basis of Article 19(2) and no other provisions.
  • Ramesh Vs. UOI: The Supreme Court dismissed a petition based on the fact that the screening of the alleged serial will increase the commission of crimes as the serial is focused on that offense. The Supreme Court observed that people are not devoid of common sense, and serial cannot be held to develop a certain malafide mentality and not be screened based on that.
  • A. Picture International Vs. CBFC: The CBFC rejected the film due to the content of the film was based on a real story and depiction of real characters. The Supreme Court stated that any film made on a true story cannot be devoid of screening merely on this basis, as according to Article 19(1) it is the filmmaker’s choice to make the film which is fictional or real.

Current Stance of Film Censorship

Currently, in India, the Cinematographic Act of 2023 is in activation. This act provided certain changes and even the union government’s power which was stuck down by the Khosla Committee’s recommendations and Supreme Court judgment in 1991 was added with adequate changes although it has been criticized by the film industry due to its non-requirement and can attract politics. The act provides rules for the non-recording of movies in cinema theatres and piracy rules and also expanded the age ratings available to the Central Board of Film Censorship. The Act remains in alignment with the Supreme Court judgments and the 2017 committee’s recommendations except for the power of CBFC which also includes cutting the content which the 2017 committee suggested to limit the power of CBFC to observe the maturity of content rather than cut failings on which the Act did not respond.

Conclusion

The evolution of film censorship in India was very chaotic and required a lot of reports and committees to enjoy a static position in Indian laws. The only barrier the movie has is the legality of it being screened publicly. It poses a lot of challenges to filmmakers to design the script which can pass the legal challenges. It is important to understand the need for film censorship laws in such a diverse country; this necessity was also determined by the evolution of laws enacted as it can be seen as a delicate matter that needs changes and recommendations every 5-10 years and there can be no static laws due to the change of need and opinion of the targeted audience.

Author: KRITIKA SINGH, in case of any queries please contact/write back to us via email to chhavi@khuranaandkhurana.com or at  Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorney.

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