Government must see that cinema is art, not just entertainment

Adoor Gopalakrishnan writes: Successive administrations have undermined filmmaking, increased censorship, and burdened films with advertisements and notices that ruin viewers’ mood and burden the producers.

In 1951, the S K Patil committee, after making a thorough study of the situation of cinema in the country, came up with several significant proposals to improve the technical and artistic standards of our films. Setting up a Film Institute, an annual international film festival, a Film Finance Corporation, a National Film Archive and the National Film Awards were some of the basic measures recommended.

Eventually, all these institutions came into being. And, in less than a decade, the results started showing. Technically trained professionals from the Film Institute steadily permeated into the industry and made a qualitative change. And they started taking the limelight at the distribution of national awards year after year.

The New Indian Cinema was born and the world took note of it.

Alas, it was all to change soon.

The National Film Development Corporation, in its new avatar of the old Film Finance Corporation, set up in 1979 with great expectations, fast became a letdown. There followed a period of mismanagement by the chief executive who was unwilling to go by its distinguished board of directors. This took the Corporation on a devious path contravening its avowed aims. Unsurprisingly, the FFC grew fast into a white elephant serving unto itself.

The last serving MD, also a bureaucrat, faithfully carried on the legacy of the first one to its perilous end. This had little to do with filmmaking or the promotion of films. It is now over two decades since it went comatose, having cut itself off from the lifeline of Indian cinema it was supposed to serve.

As members of the Film Study Group (1979), set up under the chairmanship of Shivarama Karanth, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and I mooted the idea of making a recommendation to the government to do away with censoring as it was an archaic and anachronistic concept in a modern democratic society. Unfortunately, two other members, B R Chopra and Ramanand Sagar, pleaded against the proposal and they projected the Censor Certificate as a virtual shield against rampant litigation of the kind resorted to by rivals in the industry. And we had to yield to these veterans as they sounded genuine in their concern.

That, of course, was a mistake as later developments proved.

Successive governments at the Centre saw a convenient catch in the issuance of the Censor Certificate. The first heavy blow came from a minister of health who got it made mandatory that the video of a cancer patient with a disfigured face be interpolated at the beginning, middle and end of a film as a deterrent to smoking. This showed a total lack of sensitivity on the part of the authorities: Cancer as such is a dreadful disease, should we add to the horror by showing those gruesome visuals? As a matter of fact, any sensible censor would ban its screening for the public. After all, smoking is not the sole cause of cancer. Three of my close relatives have died of cancer. And none of them was a smoker.

And there is danger lurking in featuring any animal in a film. To ensure the prevention of cruelty to animals, a certificate has to be produced from the Animal Welfare Board of India that while filming, no animal has been hurt. The concerned authority sits somewhere in Faridabad and the poor producer cannot approach it from afar. The problem is overcome by go-betweens who would “fix” this against payment of handsome amounts of money.

Although the guidelines given for film certification read as reasonable and fair, their interpretation in practice is often harsh and oppressive, sometimes verging on the ludicrous. Recently, a young friend of mine made a small budget film in which there is a scene of fish-cutting in the backyard of the house. In a couple of shots, we see a cat waiting patiently for its share. When the film was screened for certification, he was asked to give details like the name of the cat, owner of the cat, the means used for bringing the cat to the location and whether the cat was hurt in any manner. The filmmaker had no answer as it was a stray cat and cats are a regular presence at such spots. He had only caught it on camera, adding a degree of authenticity to the scene.

On the other hand, a recent Malayalam film the plot of which centred around catching and killing a leopard simply got past the censors without cuts or bruises. With pride over its box-office success, the lead actor gloated innocently, “the film has made such an impact, children are now catching hold of their pet cats and throttling them by the neck”.

Of late, every producer makes sure that no animal, even by accident, is seen in the film, thereby avoiding trouble from the censors. Thus, our films are increasingly portrayed in a world peopled only by humans to the exclusion of every other living thing in their environment.

It is now mandatory to insert various kinds of notices on the body of the film to obtain the certificate for public exhibition: Drinking is harmful to health; stop smoking, it causes cancer; treat women with respect, etc. All these free advertisements are at the cost of the producer who would have struggled to raise funds to make the film. And the government takes a free merciless ride on his already bent back.

The basic problem is that the public, as well as authorities, see cinema simply as “variety entertainment” and anything can go with it. As those who treat it as artistic expression are a small minority, their opinion does not count when policies are formulated. It is hardly realised that the insertion of warnings and cautions and also those insufferable videos interfere with the viewers’ mood and concentration. This is a mindless violation of artistic expression. And India happens to be the only country in the world that gleefully keeps to this malpractice without any sense of shame.

The regional offices of the Board of Film Certification are peopled with an officer and members who are not particularly initiated in the art of cinema. So, while enforcing cuts or even refusing a certificate, the decision passed down by the officer turns out to be the final verdict.

One way out for the producer was to approach the appellate authority for redressal. It was recently reported that the appellate authority has been dissolved. That puts a seal on appeals, a civilised democratic procedure.

All the departments of the government dealing with cinema are reportedly being brought under the National Film Development Corporation. This decision is fraught with grave consequences if we take experience as any guide. The NFDC is already a dead horse and you are flogging it to carry heavier weight. Also, the decision to bring the National Film Archive of India under the armpit of a corporation is an ill-thought one.

The International Film Festival of India, now situated in Goa, was started more than half a century ago as an A-Grade festival, the first in Asia. But over the years, it has only steadily slid down to a No-Grade one. The reason is simple: Successive governments have been averse to accord it autonomy and let the festival be run by professionals who are committed to the cause of cinema. The case of the annual National Film Awards is not different. Merit is hardly the criterion for judgement. According to the rules, the juries should be composed of people with proven eminence in cinema, theatre and/or any of the arts, including literature. This stipulation is hardly adhered to.

One must see it against the introduction of special awards for “wholesome entertainment” which axiomatically, inexcusably, officially admits that the meritorious award-winning films are devoid of entertainment.

To this day, all matters related to cinema are grouped under the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, a legacy of the colonial past. Cinema, in its essence, neither collects information nor broadcasts it. Strangely, it has not occurred to anyone up there that there should be an independent Ministry for Cinema like in countries that nurture and promote film culture.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 28, 2021 under the title ‘Big screen, small vision’. The writer is a filmmaker.

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