An Insider’s View of How the CBFC Works and the Power It Wields

While the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)  finds itself embroiled in another unsavoury  controversy with its decision not to certify Lipstick Under My Burkha, it is interesting that filmmakers are once again questioning the credentials of those who watch a film and decide its fate.

Having been a ‘Member of the  Advisory Panel, CBFC’  at its Regional office in Kolkata for over 5 years, this thought had often crossed my mind too.  When I was appointed in 2009, I was told that as a journalist with over  two and a half decades of print and broadcast experience, I would add value. The four-member panel that views each film (from a pool of near 60 members) should ideally comprise ‘a cross section of society and interests’ according to the CBFC manual.

I often found that I had a doctor and  a professor sitting on either side of me. But there was also one group that seemed to be growing in numbers. They were ‘political nominees’. The ruling party of the day, I was told, obliges some of its loyalists and appoints them advisory panel members.

We would report for the screening at the appointed hour, watch the film over a cup of tea and biscuits. The CBFC paid a fee of Rs 800 when I first started  and some years later raised it to Rs 1000.

Being a member of the CBFC panel isn’t a dream job like it’s made out to be. You have to watch all kinds of films. (Photo: Reuters)

Initially, for me there was a sense of novelty. Having made two documentaries, I looked forward to this new assignment. But alas documentaries for certification were few and far between. It was a rare delight to watch meaningful Bengali cinema, the bulk  of the films we had to certify were  truly a challenge to sit through… Bhojpuri films, Bengali films which pathetically tried to clone their Bollywood counterparts. But our job was to watch the films with our eyes wide open and most of us did that. Though  I must confess I often heard a gentle snore! It took all types to make the four-member panel for each screening.

Today, when filmmakers like Sudhir Mishra say  “member have to be selected carefully” I fully empathise with the sentiment. Not just the  members appointed by the central government, even those in the regional offices need to be selected judiciously.

There were times when the attitude of the advisory panel members would  leave me speechless. It was strange how some revelled in the ‘sense of power’ this bestowed on them.  Their body language when the hapless director would be called into the auditorium after the screening left me stunned. There was an unabashed sense of superiority, of being in ‘control’.

I remember one incident when a fairly well known film director had made a film set during the  change in West Bengal’s political dispensation. The film took a critical look at the Trinamool Congress that had been sworn in after it vanquished the Left Front. After the screening, the film director was called in. I found myself in a minority that day and my voice was drowned. I watched an absurd drama unfold. “Your film is too political. You must make a less political film,”  announced the regional director. The filmmaker made it plain that he would do no such thing and he would wait for the Revising Committee to have a look at his work.

Members of the CBFC panel can have political agendas, thereby manipulating what the audience can or cannot watch. (Photo: Reuters)

There were several occasions when I found that the four- member panel was divided on an issue.

According to the government’s rules two of the four  members on the panel had to be women. Interestingly, I often found the women members were more liberal than the men and less reluctant to use the scissors.

We were expected to maintain confidentiality and not broadcast that we were advisory panel members while serving our term, yet  there was a member who had printed visiting cards complete with the Ashoka emblem in gold and would brazenly distribute them. This was his moment of ‘authority’ and he was going to announce it from the rooftops!

We were never informed of the name of the film in advance. Total secrecy had to be maintained and members and filmmakers were to be kept strictly apart. In the early months, I heard unsubstantiated rumours of how ‘deals had been struck’. For me the most awkward moment was when a young filmmaker whose film had been cleared without any ‘cuts’  thanked another lady member and me as we were leaving the office and then dived to touch our feet. We  were both shocked and embarrassed!

But, now I realize that such treatment can put those associated with the process of certifying films on an undeserved pedestal.

Lipstick Under My Burkha has won international awards but the CBFC doesn’t deem it fit to be viewed in India.

I have not seen Alankrita Shrivastava’s, Lipstick Under My Burkha  so I am unable to comprehend CBFC’s  main objection. But what I do understand is that the Board has damaged its cause by   saying it is “lady oriented”. This despite the fact that female-oriented films like Gulaab Gang, Mardani, Queen, Pink, Parched etc have been applauded.  The Board also feels “female fantasies are degrading”.  In  an interview  when the  CEO was  told that there were enough films which talked of male fantasies, he actually said, “those were different times”.

Are we then to understand that we live in more regressive times now?

While the filmmaker wages her battle to expose the hard-hitting truth about the reality of Indian women with a censor board she finds “clueless about gender politics, feminism and cinema”,  one can only hope that the system goes through a complete overhaul  and paves the way for sanity to prevail.

(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)