Final Cut

The end of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal leaves filmmakers even more powerless before the censors

The film tribunal most famously overturned a censor board decision in the case of Bandit Queen in 1994. It held that the film had to be considered in its context as a full work, and cleared it for release with only one cut. Jacques Lange / Paris Match / Getty Images
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14 May, 2021

The film fraternity was blindsided by the sudden abolition of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal in early April. The FCAT is a statutory body that came into existence in 1983 to provide an avenue for redressal for filmmakers unhappy with decisions made by the censor board. The move is part of the Modi government’s wider attempt at reforming tribunals and was brought in through an ordinance, after a bill that would have abolished the tribunal was rejected by parliament in February. Typical of this administration’s style, the measure was imposed with little consultation among those it is affects most. (Among the other tribunals that have been scrapped are those relating to copyright, patents, customs and farmers’ rights.) 

Several prominent figures in the film industry expressed their consternation. The director Vishal Bhardwaj called it “a sad day for cinema.” Hansal Mehta called the move “arbitrary and definitely restrictive.” Sharmila Tagore, a former chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, also expressed dismay and said that the FCAT was “an enabling body and bridge between producers on the one hand and civil society on the other.” During her tenure at the censor board, she had recommended expanding the tribunal’s remit. 

Every film set for public exhibition in the theatres or on television needs to go through the censor board, which provides certification and suggests cuts. If a filmmaker disagrees with its decisions, they could, until now, appeal to the tribunal, which had the final word in most cases. The most prominent recent example of the tribunal overturning a censor-board decision came in 2017, with Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under my Burkha. The censor board, led by Pahlaj Nihalini at the time, refused to certify the film because it was “lady oriented,” with “contanious [sic] sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit of sensitive touch about one particular section of society.” Ironically, a year later, Nihalini himself approached the tribunal when the censor board suggested several cuts to his film Rangeela Raja.

Now, whenever film producers want to challenge the censor board, their only recourse will be to drag it through the high courts. With an already overburdened judiciary, the fear is that appeals will face long delays and filmmakers will have to bear onerous costs. And, given the Modi government’s obsession with controlling the narrative above all else through every institution at its disposal, the repercussions of the tribunal’s end are likely to be more far-reaching than can immediately be imagined. 

Puja Sen is the senior associate editor at The Caravan.