Shyam Benegal is well acquainted with occupying positions where he has to perform adjudicative duties. The eminent director is equally familiar with censorship, having had to excise portions of his own films on directions from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), a statutory body whose workings he has now been asked to fix – the government announced on Friday that he would head a panel tasked with “recommending a holistic framework for the country's film censor board, and to suggest changes in the Cinematograph Act, so that artistic creativity and freedom are not curtailed”.
Benegal spoke to Firstpost about his new responsibilities and how he plans to go about cleaning up the CBFC.
The CBFC seems mired in controversies. No matter what it does, there is criticism.
See, the tragedy of censorship in our country is that often, personal biases and prejudices come in the way of evaluating films for the Indian audience. As you know, the Indian audience is extremely diverse. You can’t really categorise them and say, “This is your audience.” You can never tell. Also the gulf between the urban and non-urban, the metropolitan and non-metropolitan audience…the guidelines of the censor board are too rigid to be applied to this diverse audience.
So what is the solution?
There should be a basic guideline about whether a film has used obscenity in terms of speech, behaviour or gesture. Or in terms of the situation created by the script. Now, whether these situations are actually awkward or embarrassing for the average moviegoer or whether it affects the audience in a way that’s socially harmful and this is where the depiction of sex and nudity comes in is a moot point. On the other hand you have the use of violence. It has to be determined if the use of violence is much too horrific and intense and does it dull your audiences’ sensibilities towards violence.
So how does one determine whether obscenity and violence are actually detrimental to society?
That is the problem. These are not things that one can sit down in judgement over, at least so easily. This is where we need to address the question of how much philosophical, psychological and sociological wherewithal is possessed by members of the censor board, and in the current scenario, by the chairman of the censor board, because many of the things that he has done have been on the face of it, questionable (CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani has invited the ire of the industry for his overbearing ways and for being excessively censorious.) These are problems that have happened in the censor board even in the past.
What is your opinion on this?
Does the censor come in the way of your film or is it of any help? There may be themes and situations in films that could influence impressionable minds. It is up to the filmmaker to be mindful of those situations. I’d rather that the filmmakers themselves exercise restraint in their expression. You cannot stop people from making the films they want to.
So the onus of censorship should be on the filmmakers?
It’s a very difficult responsibility, because at the end of the day cinema is a commercial business. Audiences have to be drawn in to recover investment. It’s a complex situation. But one thing is for certain. The government is not going to get rid of the censor board any time soon. I personally think the need for a censor board shouldn’t be there, particularly in a democracy. If we are capable of changing governments on the basis of our votes, we know what’s good for us. Why can’t we decide what is good for us to watch in the cinema?
You mean self-censorship?
I would rather have gradation rather than censorship whereby audiences are told that a film may not be suitable for someone below 16 or 18, that it may be suitable for a more mature audience. Rather than using scissors, audiences should be told that certain films with violence or sex might not be suitable for children. Why cut up a film? Britain allows its audience to make up its mind about what to see. The idea of using scissors to cut up a filmmaker’s work is a disturbing one.
Have you faced censorship issues with your films?
Oh, yes. Nishant was cut. There was a scene of Anant Nag and a girl making love behind a tree. They wanted it cut so we cut it. Some filmmakers applied a strange logic to get their lovemaking scenes passed. They put so much of sex in a scene that even after the censor board cut it there was some left. It was sad and nonsensical logic. My film Bhumika was snipped. In Manthan there were two cuts. Otherwise they’d have given me an ‘A’ certificate. One cut was where Girish Karnad was explaining artificial insemination in cattle. These cuts never made any sense to me. In recent years I’ve had no problems. Maybe because my recent films are more satirical.
But you accepted these cuts?
I wouldn’t have. But my producers did. It was their money. And I didn’t want any trouble. So I gave up.