Courts have a way of putting the fear of law not only in mere mortals but also in governments. And so it came to be that when the Allahabad High Court directed the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to “look into the matter of The Dirty Picture (of the National Award given by the President of India fame),” the ministry decided to spell out once more, for the benefit of the viewer and the channel, what it thinks is proper entertainment.
The Dirty Picture was to make its television debut on April 22, during the course of the day (12 noon) but was stalled following the ministry’s directive to show the film only after 11 pm. In the past, the ministry has often taken out time to spell out appropriate content when it is not otherwise occupied with granting licenses to news and entertainment channels. But such are the strange ways in which the ministry acts, that while “offensive/sexist/racist/insulting commercials and programmes” get prime-time viewing and billing, a film on how a woman is objectified in Indian cinema is somehow deemed inappropriate for unrestricted viewing.
To be fair to the ministry, did it really have a chance to act against the honourable court? In following their bidding, it was also following the cinematograph rules of certification—framed back in 1952! Subsequent amendments to the moth-balled act in the last 60 years have been an exercise in editing rather than useful changes appropriate to the times. Well, almost.
This time around, one thought the ministry would have applied its mind in creating a liberal space for the arts. Well, at least it was making the right moves. In the era of transparency and openness, the ministry of information and broadcasting put out the draft of the proposed amendments to the Draft Cinematograph Bill, 2010 on its website and that’s where it has been lying since. What could have been a splendid opportunity in letting the Parliament debate on certification rules has been allowed to languish on the website.
But praise must be given where it is due. The proposed bill begins with a lofty preamble:
“The Cinematograph Act, 1952, which is almost six decades old, needs to be made contemporary in order to make the process of certification of films for exhibition in time with the changed times and also make it an effective tool to combat piracy.”
While a discussion on piracy is not within the ambit of this column, the bit about keeping with the times certainly is. But all that the amendments do are in adding another age category. So you see 12 (Unrestricted), 15 (U/A: Parental Guidance), 18 (Adult) and S (Special Categories of films —to be watched by professionals like doctors). There is very little discussion on content in the draft bill.
So, can you really blame the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFS), which, when confronted with heaving bosoms, quite rightly, conferred the Adult certificate for distribution of the film in theatres? And when the broadcaster, Sony, decided to cash in on the film, all it had to do was to go back and return with a U/A certification to render it fit for television. One could perhaps question Sony’s motives too and its responsibility to viewers. Was it fair to show an Adult film after getting it suitably pruned for general viewing?
To be fair to the CBFS, all it said was that the film should not be shown during daytime. “Only night,. with parental guidance,” was the directive.
While one could go on about how the advent of internet has rendered all such exercises futile, television has a greater reach than internet in the country. Close to 145 million homes have cable. And internet users are in the realm of four million. Unlike the internet, which is a solitary exercise, television in large parts of India is still a very family-oriented medium. And so, the CBFS was only following the rules, keeping the nation’s young in mind. The ministry too was following the rules and the courts too were acting in the capacity of gatekeepers of middle class morality.
So, if everyone was acting according to rules, what is the the din all about? It all boils down to regulation and who should regulate. It is the nature of the filmmaker’s craft to push the envelope on morals and redefine them for the society at large. Which is why the kiss, forbidden in the recent past, is now on prime time. It is the society which should debate on what those regulations ought to be. Can we therefore have a discussion from the stakeholders, the people? It's time we take ourselves a little seriously.