Scrapping of FCAT: Film industry gets another blow amid Covid-19 pandemic

It is the FCAT that created the ground for the release of films like Bandit Queen (1994, pictured) and Udta Punjab (2016)
The walls are closing in.

If you are a filmmaker who doesn’t agree with the changes or cuts the Central Board of Film Certification's (CBFC) examining body demanded, you could always go to the revising committee. And if the revising committee didn’t give you any joy, there was always the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). The five-member statutory body set up in 1983 has for 37 years been the voice of reason that read badly worded CBFC orders and tried to create a middle ground where filmmakers and babus could meet. You could write your own petition and defend your film and the context in which it had been made.

It is the FCAT that created the ground for the release of films like Joker (2019), it proved to be as conservative as the CBFC. “Not all decisions of the FCAT are great. But it has been a good safety valve between the CBFC and judiciary,” reckons Dr Indranil Bhattacharya, a film scholar who has researched film censorship in India. On April 4, with the notification of the Tribunals Reforms (Rational­is­ation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2021, FCAT was abolished.

Not surprisingly there have been howls of protest from across the film industry. Filmmakers like Hansal Mehta (Gangs of Wasseypur) took to Twitter earlier this week to question the decision. “Do the high courts have a lot of time to address film certification grievances? How many film producers will have the means to approach the courts?” said Mehta.

That is the big question.

Without the FCAT, filmmakers will now have to go straight to the high courts. That involves the usual delays in listing/ hearing of cases, and is expensive. You need to hire one of the few lawyers who specialise in the area. This move then automatically eliminates small and documentary filmmakers who do not have the resources for a prolonged fight. The big studios and filmmakers would have access to lawyers and money but they too will lose time and energy if a film lands up in court. “The number of cases at FCAT is much lesser than that of high courts. The members of the tribunal used to watch the entire film. There were detailed deliberations during the hearings. It will be impossible to get this level of attention on every film in the courts,” says Bhattacharya, who has examined several FCAT orders.

The elephant in the room, say experts across the film industry, is the politicisation of the CBFC. Its 24-26 members are chosen for their allegiance to the government, an ideology, or as a sinecure. Most on the advisory boards come with their own prejudices and with little understanding of the cinematic idiom. There are few film scholars or critics on board. “The Justice Mukul Mudgal Committee (2013) and the Shyam Benegal Committee (2018) both had recommended reforms for FCAT and an expansion of its jurisdiction,” says Bhattacharya. The Bene­gal committee recommended that the CBFC should restrict itself to certification and not censorship. These reports have never been discussed.

You could argue that film is one among sectors such as aviation and pharmaceuticals where appellate tribunals have been abolished. Tribunals were meant to lessen the court's role in adjudication of specialised matters like cinema and aviation. But after a series of cases starting 2015, there has been rising concern about the government’s control over tribunals. So now all appeals against executive decisions, where the public at large is not a litigant, will go to the high courts. Cinema just happens to be caught in the middle of a tussle between the judiciary and the executive.

Maybe. But added to the new guidelines for OTT content announced in Febru­ary this year, it creates a pincer movement for Indian cinema. Just when Indian storytelling was getting a global stage, thanks to platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, this push on the regulatory front will be a creative dampener.

On the commercial front, the news is even worse. More than 62 per cent of the industry’s revenues were wiped out in 2020. From Rs 19,100 crore in 2019, the world’s largest film producing industry now stands at Rs 7,200 crore due to the pandemic. Thousands of daily wagers have lost their jobs.

In India, films power the entire entertainment industry. About a fifth of all TV viewership and much of the programming hours on TV come from films. On OTT, nearly all the (local) original programming comes from the film industry; over 70 per cent of all music sold is from Indian films. If Indian cinema shrinks and capsizes under the burden of over-regulation, so will many other businesses.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel