On April 4th, the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) was abolished by the Tribunals Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Services) Ordinance, 2021. This Ordinance abolishes several tribunals and hands over their functioning to the High Courts (why anyone would add to the High Courts’ already burgeoning burdens is a discussion for another time). The Ordinance was earlier a Bill introduced in the Budget session of the Parliament this year, but since it wasn’t considered and therefore not passed, the Centre brought it into instant force in this way.
The FCAT, set up under the Cinematograph Act, 1952, was the last stop for filmmakers who did not agree with the decisions of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Often colloquially dubbed the “Censor Board”, the CBFC’s guidelines and suggestions for cuts have occasionally been met with distaste from filmmakers. If the CBFC’s Examining Committee did not pass a film, it went to the Revising Committee. And if the filmmaker was dissatisfied with the recommendations or decisions of both bodies, they could approach the FCAT. Generally, it was found, the FCAT ruled quickly and in the filmmakers’ favour.
The ostensible reason for the abolition? To create a smoother process, to save resources spent on infrastructure that wasn’t able to sustain itself. It is true that many tribunals have been suffering from indifferent members and numerous vacancies. But the FCAT’s committee/jury, though headed by a retired judge, consisted of professionals from the film industry as well. This meant that the filmmakers who took their grievances there could be hopeful of being heard by people who knew exactly where they were coming from and had an understanding of film. Sharmila Tagore, who headed the CBFC from 2004 to 2011, had even made suggestions to strengthen the FCAT, hoping that it could also entertain the various film-related PILs that are filed in the courts. But instead, it has been abolished.
The blow, as always, will be felt by the smallest filmmakers with the least resources. The FCAT charged an affordable fee to view the film and to hear both sides of the dispute. Filing a case in the High Court is far more expensive. Additionally, with the number of cases the High Court deals with, it is entirely possible that arriving at a decision will take much longer. While large production houses might be able to afford the delay, it will be death for small films that depend on a quick release to recover their costs.
It is also important to remember that, unlike with the strictly legal High Courts, the FCAT could view the film as a work of art as well. That meant that the jury would also consider how the CBFC’s recommended cuts would affect the film as a whole. It is tough to imagine that in the High Courts such considerations would be made at all. Judgements will naturally be arrived at based solely on legal grounds.
In truth, the abolition of the FCAT is being seen as part of a series of efforts on the part of the establishment to restrict filmmakers’ free artistic expression. Since the beginning of the year, two big cases have confirmed this belief.
In January, the release of Amazon Prime Video’s web series Tandav was met with an uproar from several members of the BJP. MP Ram Kadam claimed scenes featuring actors dressed as Hindu gods hurt (his) religious sentiments. Another member of the BJP, Kapil Mishra, angrily said Tandav was “spreading massive hate”; it is useful to point out here that Mishra himself made several hate speeches last year during the Delhi riots. Tandav’s makers and stars were subjected to at least two police complaints, and given increased police security.
In March, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) sent a notice to Netflix asking it to stop streaming the series Bombay Begums because of a scene in which a teen is shown taking drugs and then losing consciousness. This move followed two tweets by viewers of the show who claimed the series did not portray children correctly. In their notice, the NCPCR referred to “the inappropriate portrayal of children in the series” as grounds for removing the show from Netflix.
Neither Netflix nor Prime Video took their series down, although promises were made to make cuts to Tandav. For these events to be followed by the dissolution of the FCAT – it becomes clear why it seems like more than a simple coincidence.
Film censorship has long been a contentious issue in India. The current charged political climate has only brought it into greater relief. Most supporters of free speech agree that censorship cannot exist in a true democracy. In January 2016, the government instituted the Shyam Benegal Committee to inquire into the functioning of the CBFC. The Committee’s report recommended a more progressive view on the certification-versus-censorship debate and upheld artistic freedom. However, the report has since been entirely forgotten.
What is worrying is that what were earlier fringe outbursts are now becoming mainstream. In 2016, the CBFC demanded over ninety cuts in Udta Punjab, which it claimed portrayed Punjab and its drug problem negatively. This caused a brouhaha that died down once the Bombay High Court cleared the film with one cut.
In 2015, the CBFC denied certification to MSG: Messenger of God, directed by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a religious leader since convicted of rape and involvement in murder. Singh went to the FCAT and the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, both of which cleared the film.
In 2017, Lipstick Under My Burkha (directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, who also made Bombay Begums) was refused certification by the CBFC. In a badly written statement, the CBFC – then headed by Pahlaj Nihalani, an open supporter of the BJP – described the film as “lady-oriented” and condemned it for displaying the sexual fantasies of women. Shrivastava took the film to the FCAT, which cleared it with a few recommended cuts. Shrivastava said, “Of course I would have loved no cuts, but the FCAT has been very fair and clear. I feel that we will be able to release the film without hampering the narrative or diluting its essence.”
Shrivastava’s words are clear: the FCAT was a filmmaker’s last resort against the restrictive recommendations of the CBFC. Obviously, the CBFC itself needs to be re-evaluated and have its existence questioned for many reasons (as Varun Grover, who was “absolutely delighted to know about the scrapping of FCAT”, tweeted, “Next logical step, scrap CBFC”). In the meantime, though, it is crucial to note the importance of the FCAT, whose sudden dissolution is both upsetting and dispiriting.
Photo Courtesy: Prime Video
Sahir has a BA in English from St. Xavier’s College, lives in Mumbai and writes about the movies.