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Film Censorship in India: An Intriguing Phenomenon

Someswar Bhowmik

No historiography of film culture in India is complete without mention of its diabolic film censorship system. Even India’s ongoing tryst with liberalization and globalization has failed to moderate it. It continues to be perceived as the continuation of a colonial legacy fraught with moral prudery and political conservatism.   Indeed, the rulers of independent India surprised everybody by choosing to retain a colonial system, which had been in operation since 1920 under the aegis of the Cinematograph Act 1918. But in no time they overhauled it beyond recognition. Post-colonial appropriation of the system began with the establishment of a centralized body, the Central Board of Film Censorship (CBFC), in 1951. It replaced the decentralized Regional Censor Boards of the British period. The real thrust to the process, however came with the passage of the Indian Cinematograph Act in 1952. Before this, the Constitution of 1950, making Indians free citizens of a sovereign democratic republic and giving them a set of fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of speech and expression, was suitably amended to prepare the ground for a seemingly incongruous cohabitation. For close to six decades thereafter the constitutionally given right to freedom of expression and the statutorily installed film censorship machinery have formed two indispensable elements of a single framework.   The relationship between film censorship and the right to free speech and expression, guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of our Constitution with certain riders provided under Article 19 (2), is a queer one. Whose right to freedom of speech and expression does film censorship tamper with: is it the right of the communicator, or is it that of the receiver? Primarily, when a film is banned or endorsed, it is a restriction on the communicator’s right to freedom of expression. At the same time it also interferes with the receiver’s right, primarily because he is prevented from receiving or responding to the communicator’s endeavour and also because the right to free speech and expression includes the right to receive it. Only when the censors pass a film in its entirety, do they uphold the right to free speech and expression of both the communicator and the receiver.   However, the relationship between film censorship and right to freedom of expression becomes a little different, when we consider restriction in terms of the message in or meaning of a film. Now, whose message/meaning are we talking about? Film censorship is concerned with ...

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