The Judges’ Cut: How the courts have ruled on film certification in recent times

Supreme Court of India

The makers of Udta Punjab scored a small victory over the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) this week, after the Bombay High Court ruled that the cuts suggested by the regulator were unjustified.

In a move that could land the CBFC in hot water, the certificate of the film states that the movie has been passed by Justices Dharmadhikari and SP Joshi of the Bombay High Court.

However, the CBFC was not the only one standing in the way of the film’s release. Days before the June 17 release, an NGO based in Punjab challenged the Bombay High Court’s verdict in the Supreme Court. It has now come to light that the apex court has refused to stay the release of the movie, as tweeted by Indian Express.

The other petition filed in the Punjab & Haryana High Court will decide the fate of the film on June 16.

For the time being at least, the public is hailing the judiciary for upholding the freedom of speech and expression. But this is not the first time the courts have stepped in situations where the government has deemed it fit to refuse certification, or prohibit screening of films in order to “uphold public order”.

So how have the Supreme Court of India and the high courts dealt with cases involving certification and censorship of films in recent times?

Here are eight such instances:

1. Srishti School Of Art, Design & Technology v. The Chairperson, Central Board Of Film Certification & Anr.

This 2011 judgment by the Delhi High Court began with this quote from French philosopher Voltaire:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it”.

The film in question was Had Unhad, a movie made by the art school, based on the teachings of 15th century poet Kabir. The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) had made three excisions based on the guidelines framed by the centre under Section 5B of the Cinematograph Act.

The main gripe of the CBFC was that the film contained references to the Babri Masjid demolition.

The court, however, held that the film had to be considered in its entirety before determining whether or not a scene can potentially cause offence, and held the cuts to be unsustainable in law.

It held,

“As long as the film provides space for dialogue and discussion of a contentious issue, the policing out of a point of view or a visual merely because it is disagreeable to some cannot be justified.”

2. M/S Prakash Jha Productions & Anr. v. Union of India & Ors.

This matter reached the Supreme Court in 2011, after the Uttar Pradesh government banned the screening of the film Aarakshan in the state. This despite the fact that the CBFC had granted a U/A certificate to film, which was themed on caste-based reservations.

The Supreme Court refused to buy the state government’s contention that the film would cause public unrest in the state, since it was being screened in the rest of the country, and nothing untoward had happened as a result.

A Bench of Justices Mukundakam Sharma and Anil Dave held,

“…when there is public discussion and there is some dissent on these issues, an informed and better decision could be taken which becomes a positive view and helps the society to grow.”

3. Krishna Mishra and Anr. v. Central Board of Film Certification

In 2012, the Bombay High Court held that it was mandatory for both the CBFC and the FCAT to record its reasons for suggesting cuts in films. The makers of Beehad – The Ravine had objected to the fact that songs and promos of the movie were sought to be edited, for no apparent reason.

It was held,

“A small producer who produces a low budget film should not have an apprehension or perception that his artistic project has not met the same standards that are applied to films with more ‘reputed’ producers…”

4. Raaj Kamal Film International v. M/S Tamil Nadu Theatre Owners

In yet another instance of politically motivated interference, the release of Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam was prohibited after Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu took offense to scenes in the film. The state government invoked Section 144 of the Cr.PC. preventing theatre owners across the state from screening the film, even as the CBFC okayed the movie for certification.

After the makers challenged these orders in the Madras High Court, a single judge granted interim relief, suspending the government’s orders prohibiting the screening of the film. However, a Division Bench later reverseed that order.

In the end, bereft of any relief, Hassan was forced to make seven edits in order to reach a compromise.

5. Vital Media v. State of Punjab & Ors.

In 2013, the state of Punjab had passed an order preventing the screening of the film Sadda Haq, for fear that it would cause “breach of peace”. It was subsequently banned in Delhi as well.

The main cause for concern was a song used for promos of the movie, which the filmmakers contended had no connection to the film itself. The apex court then constituted a group of four Senior Advocates, led by Fali Nariman, who were entrusted with submitting a report on whether the film was suitable for public screening.

They found that the film should be allowed for screening, albeit with an adult rating. Even though the film had already been released in other states, the court ordered the CBFC, which had initially granted a ‘U’ certificate, to re-certify the film with an ‘A’ certificate.

6. Central Board of Film Certification v. Pankaj Butalia & Anr.

Earlier this year, a documentary titled Textures of Loss, highlighting the history of violence in the Kashmir valley, came under the CBFC’s scanner.

The board suggested four cuts, two of which were upheld by the FCAT, which believed that the documentary painted a negative picture of the security forces. This was successfully challenged in the Delhi High Court by the makers of the documentary.

The CBFC then preferred an appeal, during which a bench of Chief Justice G Rohini and Justice Jayant Nath found nothing objectionable in the film. It was held,

“The persons who were interviewed had merely narrated their experiences and the loss suffered by them on account of the conflict between the militants and the security forces/police…the same can neither have any demoralizing effect on the security forces nor can they be termed as anti-national.”

7. Vinay Kumar Pappu & Ors. v. The Union of India & Ors.

A few politicians from Bihar had filed a petition in the Patna High Court prohibiting the broadcast of the movie Jai Gangajal. Allegedly, the film portrayed a likeness of one of the petitioners in bad light. They sought to replace the name of the town ‘Bankipur’, the constituency of the petitioner.

In fact, they had submitted this objection to the CBFC; it was a request that was denied. Moreover, the FCAT also held that the film contained no objectionable content, and granted the film a UA certificate.

The High Court was reluctant to find fault with the CBFC’s stance, especially since the movie contained a disclaimer saying that any resemblance is purely coincidental.

8. Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee v. Union of India & Ors.

The movie Santa Banta Pvt. Ltd., released in April this year, stirred quite a controversy among the Sikh community. The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee sought to ban the release of the movie after the CBFC granted certification under the UA category.

The rationale for challenging the certification in the Delhi High Court was that the film projected Sikhs “as a laughing stock to the world at large”. The High Court left it to the CBFC to reconsider the tenability of the objections raised by the petitioners.

The film was subsequently given the green signal, in all states expect Punjab. However, the Punjab & Haryana High Court recently stayed the government order banning the release of the film.