CBFC: Censorship and Controversies

Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is India’s regulatory body responsible for reviewing and certifying films, ensuring their content adheres to legal and societal standards. It assigns ratings such as U, UA, A, and S, guiding viewership and maintaining cultural sensitivities.



In the realm of cinema, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) holds a significant position, tasked with the responsibility of certifying films for public exhibition in India. Established under the Cinematograph Act of 1952, the CBFC has undergone several transformations, adapting to the changing socio-cultural landscape of the country. This article by Academic Block dive into the history, functions, controversies, and the evolving role of the CBFC in shaping Indian cinema.

Origins and Evolution

The genesis of the CBFC can be traced back to the Indian Cinematograph Committee of 1927, which laid the groundwork for film censorship in the country. However, it was not until the enactment of the Cinematograph Act in 1952 that a formal framework for film certification was established. Initially named the Central Board of Film Censors, its primary mandate was to ensure that films were in accordance with certain moral and cultural standards.

Over the years, the board underwent several name changes, finally becoming the Central Board of Film Certification. Alongside these changes, there were also amendments to its functioning, reflecting shifts in societal attitudes towards censorship and freedom of expression. Despite its evolving nature, the CBFC has consistently remained a pivotal institution in regulating the Indian film industry.


Functions of the CBFC

The CBFC performs a variety of functions aimed at ensuring that films comply with legal, cultural, and ethical standards. Its primary responsibilities include the certification of films for public exhibition, classification based on content suitability for different age groups, and the enforcement of guidelines pertaining to film content.

When a filmmaker submits a film for certification, the CBFC evaluates it based on various parameters such as language, violence, nudity, and themes. Depending on the content, films are categorized into different certification categories: U (Universal), UA (Parental Guidance), A (Adults), and S (Special). These classifications serve as guidelines for audiences to make informed viewing choices.

In addition to certification, the CBFC also plays a role in preserving cultural values and national integrity by scrutinizing content that may be deemed offensive or socially irresponsible. This dual function of certification and censorship has often placed the CBFC at the center of heated debates regarding artistic freedom and creative expression.

Controversies Surrounding the CBFC

Throughout its existence, the CBFC has been embroiled in numerous controversies, largely stemming from its role as an arbiter of morality and censorship. One of the most notable controversies occurred during the tenure of chairman Pahlaj Nihalani, whose conservative approach to censorship led to widespread criticism from filmmakers and the public alike.

Under Nihalani’s leadership, the CBFC garnered a reputation for arbitrary censorship, often making cuts to films deemed offensive or politically sensitive. This approach drew sharp criticism from filmmakers who argued that it stifled artistic freedom and creativity. The board’s decision to deny certification to films such as “Lipstick Under My Burkha” and “Udta Punjab” further fueled the debate surrounding censorship in Indian cinema.

Apart from individual cases, the CBFC has also faced criticism for its lack of transparency and inconsistency in decision-making. Critics argue that the board’s composition, which includes members from diverse backgrounds and ideologies, often leads to conflicting opinions and subjective judgments. Additionally, the absence of clear guidelines for certification has led to confusion among filmmakers regarding what is permissible and what is not.

In response to these criticisms, there have been calls for reforming the CBFC to make it more transparent, accountable, and in tune with contemporary societal values. Suggestions range from restructuring the board’s composition to introducing a rating system similar to that of other countries, allowing audiences greater freedom in choosing the content they wish to consume.

Evolving Role in the Digital Age

In recent years, the proliferation of digital platforms has presented new challenges for film certification bodies worldwide, including the CBFC. With the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+, traditional methods of film certification have become obsolete, raising questions about the relevance of censorship in the digital age.

Unlike theatrical releases, digital platforms operate on a global scale, making it difficult for regulatory bodies to enforce content guidelines effectively. Furthermore, the absence of geographical boundaries means that content certified in one country can be accessed by audiences worldwide, making uniform certification standards a pressing issue.

To address these challenges, the CBFC has taken steps to adapt its certification process to the digital landscape. In 2018, the board introduced a new online certification system, allowing filmmakers to submit their films for certification digitally. This move not only streamlined the certification process but also made it more accessible to filmmakers across the country.

Despite these efforts, the CBFC continues to grapple with the complexities of regulating content in the digital era. The lack of a comprehensive regulatory framework for online content poses a significant challenge, as digital platforms operate outside the purview of traditional censorship laws. As a result, there is a growing debate about the need for new legislation to govern digital content and ensure compliance with ethical and cultural standards.

The Way Forward

As India’s cinematic landscape continues to evolve, the role of the CBFC in shaping the discourse around censorship and certification remains paramount. While the board faces numerous challenges and criticisms, it also presents an opportunity to foster constructive dialogue and forge consensus on contentious issues.

Moving forward, there is a need for greater transparency and accountability in the CBFC’s decision-making process, with clear guidelines and criteria for film certification. Additionally, there should be a concerted effort to depoliticize the board and insulate it from external pressures and vested interests, allowing it to fulfill its mandate impartially and objectively.

Moreover, there is a case for revisiting the archaic provisions of the Cinematograph Act and bringing it in line with contemporary standards of freedom of expression and artistic liberty. The emphasis should be on self-regulation rather than censorship, with the CBFC serving as a facilitator rather than a regulator of creative expression. Ultimately, the Central Board of Film Certification stands at a crossroads, poised to chart a new course for India’s cinematic journey.

Final Words

The Central Board of Film Certification occupies a central position in the Indian film industry, balancing the often conflicting demands of artistic freedom and societal norms. Since its inception, the CBFC has evolved in response to changing cultural attitudes and technological advancements, striving to uphold its mandate of certifying films for public exhibition.

However, the board has not been without its share of controversies and criticisms, particularly regarding its role as a censor. The tension between censorship and artistic freedom remains a perennial issue, highlighting the need for ongoing dialogue and reform within the industry.

As India’s cinematic landscape continues to evolve, the CBFC must adapt to new challenges posed by digitalization and globalization. By embracing transparency, accountability, and inclusivity, the board can fulfill its mandate effectively while safeguarding the principles of creative expression and cultural diversity. Hope you enjoyed reading with Academic Block, please provide your valuable thoughts to make this article better. Thanks for Reading!

This Article will answer your questions like:

+ What is Central Board of Film Certification? >

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is India's regulatory authority responsible for reviewing and certifying films. It ensures that content adheres to legal, cultural, and societal standards, issuing ratings that guide viewers on suitable audience categories. The CBFC plays a crucial role in maintaining cinematic standards and cultural sensitivities.

+ How to get into Central Board of Film Certification? >

To join the CBFC, one must typically be appointed by the government, often involving individuals with significant experience in the fields of film, media, or public administration. Interested candidates should demonstrate a strong understanding of Indian culture and cinema, and contribute to the board's mandate of regulating film content.

+ How many types of film certificate are there? >

The CBFC issues four main types of film certificates: U (Universal), UA (Parental Guidance), A (Adult), and S (Restricted to specialized audiences). Each category defines the suitability of the film content for different audience groups, ensuring that viewers are appropriately guided regarding film content.

+ What is the CBFC in journalism? >

In journalism, the CBFC is often discussed in the context of media censorship and regulatory practices in India. The board's decisions on film certification can influence public discourse, reflecting broader societal values and cultural norms. Journalists analyze CBFC's role in balancing artistic freedom with societal sensibilities.

+ What are the different certification categories used by the CBFC? >

The CBFC uses four certification categories: U (Universal), suitable for all age groups; UA (Parental Guidance), suitable for children above 12; A (Adult), restricted to adults above 18; and S (Special), restricted to specialized audiences like professionals. These categories help in guiding appropriate viewership.

+ What is U and UA rated movies? >

U-rated movies are suitable for all age groups, containing content appropriate for children, families, and general audiences. UA-rated movies require parental guidance for children under 12, as they may include mild violence, language, or themes that need adult supervision for younger viewers.

+ What is the CBFC A rating? >

The CBFC A rating indicates that a film is restricted to adult viewers, above 18 years of age. These films may contain explicit content, including strong language, intense violence, sexual content, or other mature themes that are deemed unsuitable for children and adolescents.

+ What are S rated movies? >

S rated movies are restricted to specialized audiences such as doctors, scientists, or professionals. These films typically contain subject matter that is highly specific and may not be suitable for a general audience, often focusing on technical or professional content.

+ What is the role of CBFC Chairman? >

The CBFC Chairman oversees the certification process, ensuring films meet the board's guidelines. They lead the board in making decisions on film classifications, represent the CBFC in public and governmental matters, and address any controversies or issues that arise regarding film certifications.

+ What are the guidelines followed by the CBFC for certification? >

The CBFC follows guidelines that address themes of violence, sexuality, obscenity, and drug abuse, ensuring content does not offend sentiments or disrupt public order. Films are evaluated based on their impact on society, artistic value, and adherence to legal and moral standards, aiming to balance creative freedom and societal norms.

+ What are some popular controversies involving the CBFC? >

Popular controversies involving the CBFC often revolve around its decisions to censor or ban films deemed offensive or inappropriate. Notable instances include the censoring of political themes, explicit content, and films challenging social norms, sparking debates on censorship, creative freedom, and the role of regulatory bodies in cinema.

+ What reforms have been introduced in the CBFC in recent years? >

Recent reforms in the CBFC include modernization of the certification process, increased transparency, and digitalization of operations. Efforts have been made to streamline certification procedures, reduce bureaucratic delays, and ensure that certification decisions are more consistent and reflective of contemporary societal values and artistic expressions.

+ What are the criteria for selecting members of the CBFC’s advisory panel? >

Members of the CBFC's advisory panel are selected based on their expertise in cinema, arts, and culture, as well as their understanding of societal norms and legal frameworks. The selection aims to ensure a diverse representation of views, balancing creative freedom with public sensibilities and ethical standards in film content.

Key roles and responsibilities of the CBFC chairman

Leadership and Direction: The chairman provides leadership and direction to the CBFC, ensuring that its activities align with its statutory mandate and objectives. They play a crucial role in setting the tone for the board’s deliberations and decisions, fostering an environment of professionalism, impartiality, and integrity.

Policy Formulation: The chairman, in collaboration with other members of the CBFC and relevant stakeholders, participates in the formulation of policies, guidelines, and procedures related to film certification. They help shape the board’s approach to censorship, classification, and regulation of films, taking into account societal norms, cultural sensitivities, and legal frameworks.

Decision-Making: The chairman presides over the CBFC’s meetings and deliberations, guiding discussions and ensuring that decisions are made in accordance with established guidelines and criteria. They may also exercise casting votes in the event of a tie or deadlock, thereby playing a decisive role in the certification process.

Representation and Advocacy: The chairman represents the CBFC in interactions with government authorities, film industry stakeholders, media, and the public. They serve as the primary spokesperson for the board, articulating its positions, policies, and initiatives, and advocating for its interests and objectives.

Conflict Resolution: In cases of disputes or controversies arising from the certification of films, the chairman may play a crucial role in mediating conflicts and resolving issues amicably. They seek to balance the interests of filmmakers, audiences, and societal concerns, promoting dialogue and consensus-building where possible.

Oversight and Accountability: The chairman oversees the implementation of CBFC’s decisions and ensures that its operations are conducted in accordance with applicable laws, rules, and regulations. They are accountable for the board’s performance and may be required to report to relevant authorities on matters related to film certification and censorship.

Reforms implemented by the CBFC in recent years

Digital Transformation: The CBFC has embraced digital technologies to streamline its certification process and enhance efficiency. The introduction of an online submission portal has simplified the procedure for filmmakers, allowing them to submit their films for certification electronically. This digital transformation has reduced bureaucratic hurdles, improved accessibility, and expedited the review process.

New Certification Categories: In 2017, the CBFC introduced a new certification category, ‘UA 12+’ (Parental Guidance for children under 12), to bridge the gap between the ‘U’ (Universal) and ‘UA’ (Parental Guidance) classifications. This move was aimed at providing age-appropriate content for adolescents while allowing filmmakers greater creative freedom in addressing themes relevant to young audiences.

Transparency and Accountability: The CBFC has taken steps to enhance transparency and accountability in its decision-making process. Filmmakers can now track the progress of their certification applications in real-time through the online portal, receive timely updates on the status of their films, and access information about the reasons for any cuts or modifications requested by the board.

Diversification of Advisory Panel: There has been a concerted effort to diversify the composition of the CBFC’s advisory panel to reflect the plurality of India’s cultural landscape. The inclusion of members from diverse backgrounds, including representatives from regional cinema, marginalized communities, and academia, has brought fresh perspectives to the board’s deliberations and helped mitigate biases and prejudices.

Reduced Interventions: The CBFC has adopted a more liberal approach towards film certification, with a focus on minimizing unnecessary cuts or modifications to films. While the board continues to uphold certain standards of decency and public order, it seeks to balance artistic freedom with societal sensitivities and avoid arbitrary censorship of content deemed controversial or provocative.

Consultative Approach: The CBFC has adopted a more consultative approach in its interactions with filmmakers and industry stakeholders. It engages in dialogue and consultation sessions to seek feedback on proposed reforms, guidelines, and policies, fostering a collaborative environment that promotes mutual understanding and respect for diverse perspectives.

Training and Capacity Building: The CBFC has invested in training and capacity building initiatives to enhance the skills and competencies of its staff members. Training programs on film certification processes, legal frameworks, and emerging trends in cinema are conducted regularly to ensure that board members are equipped with the knowledge and expertise required to fulfill their roles effectively.

Academic References on Central Board of Film Certification

  1. Bharucha, N. (2009). Censorship and certification in India: The case of ‘Fire’. South Asian Popular Culture, 7(2), 143-156.
  2. Chakravarty, S. (2017). Films and Censorship in India: The CBFC’s Role. Economic and Political Weekly, 52(15), 65-67.
  3. Datta, R. (2018). Freedom to Censor: The CBFC’s Ban on ‘India’s Daughter’. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, 17.
  4. Deshpande, R. (2016). Film censorship in India: A critical examination. Journal of Arts & Humanities, 5(7), 57-64.
  5. Gokulsing, K. M., & Dissanayake, W. (2013). The Indian cinema book. British Film Institute.
  6. Khanna, A. (2015). Films, censorship, and resistance: Understanding the politics of representation in contemporary India. Journal of International Communication, 21(2), 45-58.
  7. Mehta, M. (2019). Cutting room politics: Bollywood and the censor’s scissors. Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 55(2), 202-217.
  8. Mukherjee, R. (2014). Censorship in Indian cinema: How far is it justified? Global Media Journal – Indian Edition, 5(2), 1-13.
  9. Ranganathan, M. (2018). Censorship in Indian cinema: A historical perspective. Studies in Indian Politics, 6(2), 243-257.
  10. Ray, M. (2012). Censorship, colonialism, and Indian cinema: The case of ‘Bandit Queen’. Journal of Arts & Humanities, 1(1), 14-23.
  11. Sreenivasan, R. (2015). Censoring homosexuality: Indian cinema’s battle with the CBFC. Journal of South Asian Popular Culture, 13(3), 215-229.
  12. Srivastava, R. (2016). Negotiating censorship: Filmmakers and the CBFC in India. Asian Cinema, 27(2), 238-253.
  13. Taneja, N. (2017). ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ and the CBFC: A case of moral policing in Indian cinema. South Asian Review, 38(2), 205-220.
  14. Virdi, J. (2018). Censorship of ‘S Durga’ and ‘Nude’: CBFC, the new moral brigade? South Asian Popular Culture, 16(3), 241-254.

Certification categories used by the CBFC

U (Universal): Films classified under the ‘U’ category are deemed suitable for all age groups. They typically contain content that is considered wholesome and appropriate for general audiences, including children.

UA (Parental Guidance): Films categorized as ‘UA’ require parental guidance for children under the age of 12. While these films may contain mild violence, language, or themes that may not be suitable for younger viewers, they are considered acceptable with parental supervision.

A (Restricted to Adults): Films classified as ‘A’ are restricted to adult audiences only. These films may contain explicit language, violence, sexual content, or other mature themes that are not suitable for children or younger audiences.

S (Restricted to Specialized Audiences): The ‘S’ category is reserved for films intended for specialized audiences such as film festival screenings or educational purposes. These films may contain content that is meant for mature viewers or specific interest groups.

Guidelines followed by CBFC for certification

Obscenity and Vulgarity: The CBFC prohibits the depiction of obscenity and vulgarity in films, particularly scenes or dialogues that are sexually explicit or gratuitously offensive. Films containing excessive nudity, graphic violence, or explicit language may be subject to cuts or modifications to comply with these guidelines.

Violence and Gore: The CBFC evaluates the portrayal of violence and gore in films, taking into account factors such as context, impact, and audience sensitivity. While realistic depictions of violence may be permitted in certain contexts, gratuitous or excessive violence intended solely for shock value may be deemed inappropriate.

Sexuality and Sensuality: Films that contain scenes of sexuality or sensuality are evaluated based on their treatment of the subject matter and its relevance to the plot or character development. While the CBFC acknowledges the importance of artistic expression, it may impose restrictions on explicit sexual content to ensure that films are suitable for different age groups.

Language and Dialogues: The CBFC assesses the language and dialogues used in films, particularly profanity, obscenities, or derogatory remarks that may be deemed offensive or inflammatory. While filmmakers are encouraged to portray realism and authenticity in their dialogues, excessive use of offensive language may result in cuts or modifications.

Religious and Political Sensitivities: Films that deal with religious or political themes are subject to scrutiny to ensure that they do not incite communal or sectarian tensions or offend religious sentiments. The CBFC may intervene if it deems that certain portrayals or interpretations could potentially spark controversy or unrest.

Social Values and Morality: The CBFC considers the impact of films on societal values and norms, particularly with regard to issues such as family relations, gender roles, and cultural traditions. Films that promote positive social messages or challenge entrenched stereotypes may be viewed favorably, while those that perpetuate harmful stereotypes or glorify antisocial behavior may face scrutiny.

Drug Abuse and Substance Use: Films that depict drug abuse or substance use are evaluated based on their treatment of the subject matter and its potential impact on viewers, especially young audiences. The CBFC may require films to include cautionary messages or disclaimers to discourage irresponsible behavior or glamorization of drug use.

Depiction of Children: Films that feature children or target child audiences are subject to special scrutiny to ensure that they are suitable and safe for young viewers. The CBFC may impose restrictions on content that could potentially harm or exploit children or expose them to inappropriate themes or imagery.

Popular controversies around CBFC

“Bandit Queen” (1994): Shekhar Kapur’s biographical film “Bandit Queen” faced significant controversy due to its explicit content, including scenes of sexual violence. The CBFC initially refused to certify the film for exhibition, citing its graphic depiction of rape and nudity. After several cuts and modifications, the film was eventually released with an ‘A’ (Restricted to adults) certificate, but not without sparking debates on censorship and artistic freedom.

“Fire” (1998): Deepa Mehta’s film “Fire,” which depicted a lesbian relationship, stirred controversy and protests from conservative groups in India. The CBFC initially granted the film a certificate for public exhibition, but its decision was challenged in court by religious and political organizations. The controversy surrounding the film highlighted the clash between artistic expression and cultural conservatism in Indian society.

“Water” (2005): Deepa Mehta’s “Water,” the final installment of her Elements trilogy, faced resistance from Hindu nationalist groups who objected to its portrayal of the plight of widows in pre-independent India. The film’s shooting was disrupted, and its release was delayed due to protests and threats of violence. While the CBFC eventually cleared the film for release, its journey to the screen was marred by controversy and opposition.

“Udta Punjab” (2016): Abhishek Chaubey’s “Udta Punjab,” which depicted the rampant drug abuse in the Indian state of Punjab, became a battleground for freedom of expression when the CBFC demanded multiple cuts and modifications to the film. The decision sparked outrage among filmmakers and civil society groups, who accused the board of censorship and political interference. The controversy reignited debates on the autonomy of the CBFC and its role in censoring content.

“Padmaavat” (2018): Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s historical epic “Padmaavat” faced vehement opposition from fringe groups, who alleged that the film distorted historical facts and depicted a revered queen in a derogatory light. Despite receiving clearance from the CBFC, the film’s release was marred by protests, vandalism, and threats of violence.

“Lipstick Under My Burkha” (2017): Alankrita Shrivastava’s “Lipstick Under My Burkha,” which explored the lives of four women and their sexual desires, ran into trouble with the CBFC, which initially refused to certify the film for its bold and feminist themes. 

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