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SPOTLIGHT: A HOUSE DIVIDED

November 04, 2018

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Illustration by Soonhal Khan
Illustration by Soonhal Khan

A grown man briefly talks about getting peanut butter on his private parts. Teens exchange sexual banter. A couple starts getting intimate, but these blink-and-miss scenes get cut before any bare skin is shown on-screen. Shortly afterwards, a good number of people are shown hacked, impaled, strangled by chains and bludgeoned by hammers. In a way, it is business as usual in Haddonfield, Illinois, the fictitious town stalked by the mask-wearing psycho Mike Myer in the film Halloween — a continuation of the long-running franchise that is, obviously, written as an ‘R’-rated motion picture. In the US, the R-rating means anyone under 17 years of age requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Halloween isn’t an anomaly in the genre. Like its ilk, the tropes of this genre have hardly changed since the first film came out in 1978. This brings up the question: why was the film initially denied a censor certificate in Pakistan, especially when it was passed uncut by two of the three censor boards in the country?

Weirder still, after being temporarily ‘put on hold’, Halloween ended up playing all over Pakistan with both 18+ and PG (Parental Guidance) certifications; two ratings that stand worlds apart in their classifications. This is not a new story. In fact, brief jolts like this are now nearly the norm for both distributors and the audiences.

Hardly a month back, Manmarziyaan, another fittingly A-rated (in Pakistan A stands for Adult or 18+) movie featuring the return of Abhishek Bachchan, was banned by one censor board, yet released by the other two.

Why this mess?

Censorship certifications for films exhibiting in Pakistan are derived from three autonomous provincial divisions by the government: the Sindh Board of Film Censors (SBFC), the Punjab Board of Film Censors (PBFC) — both self-explanatory of their jurisdictions — and Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) which oversees the federal capital areas of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, the cantonment areas around the country and the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

With three film certification boards making decisions often at odds with each other, more and more films are being held up or released in different versions across the country, and sometimes in different cinemas in the same city. But is centralisation the only panacea?

This decentralisation is a by-product of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, which devolved most ministries to the provincial level. One of these was the formerly titled Ministry of Archaeology and Culture which oversaw architecture, textile and the arts (ie. theatre, cinema, music) on both federal and the provincial levels.

Since culture was deemed a purely provincial subject, the provinces were transferred the mandate to set up their own independent cinema censor boards as well. So far so good. But problems arose firstly because of the reluctance of the CBFC (it was transferred to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) to relinquish its previous role controlling films throughout the country and its insistence that its decisions held sway over at least the cantonment areas dotted throughout Pakistan. Secondly the mess arises because films are usually released across the country while there was no official coordination between the different boards. Each board has developed its own interpretation of the ratings sytem as well.

A CBFC document written between 2003-2006 highlights the history of the bureau. It reads: “At the time of creation of Pakistan, the censorship of films was a provincial subject and different boards were functioning at Lahore, Karachi and Dacca under the Cinematograph Act, 1918. Films certified by one board could not be exhibited in another province without undergoing the process of censorship in that province. Sometimes a film passed by one board was declared unsuitable for exhibition in the other province by their respective board. In order to bring uniformity in the decision of the boards and to mitigate the film producers/importers inconvenience and financial hardships, the subject of censorship was centralised through [an] enactment of the Censorship of Films Act, 1963.”

The 18th Amendment, however, “amended” that decree, which brings us back to our current state of dilemma. How can the film industry thrive, when the three censor boards — each consisting of 20 members from various walks of life, including representatives of security agencies ISPR and ISI — have polar opposite tastes when evaluating films? Shouldn’t the guidelines of the system basically be the same? And yet, as we know from Halloween’s case, they aren’t.

As per the Sindh Censorship of Film Rules, 2014, a PG rating indicates Parental Guidance. It reads that: “in the view of the Board, parents may consider some material unsuitable for their children. There may be some profanity and some depictions of violence but these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance and there is no drug use in the content.”

In contrast, an 18+(Adult) certification “is appropriately, only for adult audience and can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and [therefore] off-limits for viewing by their children.”

Halloween, with a PG rating classified by SBFC, is playing at ME Cinemas at Atrium Mall, Karachi. The 18+ rated cut from the CBFC is showing in Nueplex at Rashid Minhas Road, since those cinemas come under cantonment jurisdiction, and thus CBFC.

A further look into the classification scales introduces further head-scratching double-takes.

SBFC rates films on a scale of U (Universal, approved for general audiences), PG (Parental Guidance), PG-13 (‘Parents Cautioned’), PG-15 (Suitable for 15 years and older) and 18+ (For Adults only).

At CBFC, the certificate categories are quite different. U and F (Universal and Family) classifications — which are more or less the same — are followed by PG and A (Adults). F, somehow, also incorporates elements generally covered by PG (PG in CBFC is akin to PG-13, from my understanding).

This difference leads to a world of financial hurt and confusion for the film fraternity.

“(The issue) is impacting everybody,” says Satish Anand who heads Eveready Group, Pakistan’s oldest distribution company. “Take Raees for example — it was cleared uncut by two censors and banned by one …what is this?! If one film is liable to be banned, or to be given an A certificate, then it should be the same everywhere.”

Eveready’s Eidul Azha release Parwaaz Hai Junoon, (PHJ, in collaboration with Hum Films) also suffered a somewhat similar fate at the time of release. It was held up by the CBFC at the day of the premiere, resulting in major financial losses. Interestingly, like Manmarziyaan — also distributed by Eveready — it was given a clean bill of health from SBFC and the PBFC.

PHJ getting stuck at the censors was strange news to hear because the film was produced in association with Media Affairs — the Pakistan Air Force media wing — and highlighted the camaraderie and derring-do of veteran pilots and aspiring cadets. The film didn’t cross any “moral or ethics” boundary set by the Motion Pictures Ordinance of 1979.

The ordinance lists a broad outline of rules. Principally, it does not permit licenses to films that “ridicule, disparage or attack Islam or any religious sect, caste and creed; question the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or hurts national sentiments; undermine public order, decency or morality, (including vulgar dialogues, songs, or gestures) or glorifies vice or crime.”

In PHJ’s case, unofficial sources cite two reasons for CBFC’s refusal: one, the film didn’t have subtitles so board members couldn’t understand the dialogues in Pushto; and two, they felt that radical villains conversing in that language could incite racial tension.

Verna, a Shoaib Mansoor film (also a Hum and Eveready release), also posed a similar double-edged problem for the CBFC: could the censors allow the depiction of a minister’s son as a big, bad wadera (landlord) with rapist tendencies, without rubbing the goverment the wrong way?

In cases of conflicts like these, the distributor can request a full-board review of the film. As explained by CBFC Chairman Danyal Gillani, films are often reviewed by at least five people. A full-board review when requested (minus the members who had seen and voted on the film) takes up to two days — and at times that leads to release delays.

According to Gillani, distributors submit their films just days prior to their release. While the CBFC and the other boards accommodate previews at the last moment, the constrained schedule only impact films that have a “problematic story” or thematic elements.

Both Verna and PHJ were given Pakistan-wide releases after full-board sessions were requested (in Verna’s case, former Minister of Information Maryam Aurangzeb came to the rescue). However, for imported films — the ones who are routinely put through this “banned/unbanned” process — that doesn’t seem to be a viable option.

Amjad Rashid, CEO of Distribution Club (DC), a prominent Bollywood film distributor, says that it’s just not feasible to release a film in one market.

“Sindh has just 28 percent of Pakistan’s entire business. When you pay 100 percent for the movie, you cannot just bank on 28 percent,” he said.

“Once the movie is rejected by the CBFC, which includes the cantonment areas, the distributor chooses to avoid releasing the movie because they do not want to annoy the censor board [because of its] political position. Secondly, there is no compensation clause from the [Indian film exporter]. When we import a movie, we put in a clause that if it is rejected by the censor boards, they will charge us just 5,000 dollars for expenses. If released on a provincial basis [and not just Sindh], then it is between both distributors [to come to an understanding],” he clarifies.

Rashid also feels that the previous centralised system was “much easier, convenient and less time-consuming.” Now, he says, “Practically, we have to apply, submit fees and follow-up our dates with three censor boards.”

Looking at the fees, CBFC’s certification cost is 20,000 rupees for English and Indian films (certificate valid for three years), and 25,000 rupees for Pakistani films (valid for 25 years). SBFC doesn’t charge Pakistani films; their rate for Indian and English releases, however, is 35,000 rupees. PBFC, in stark contrast, charges thrice as much. Their going-rate for Pakistani films is 30,000 rupees, and 100,500 rupees for Indian and English releases.

The cinema rental fee for preview (neither board has their own cinema halls, or projectors to review films) and refreshment costs add another 35,000 rupee per board.

Khalid Bin Shaheen, the recently appointed Chairman of the SBFC, seems to have a solution to this problem. After multiple conversations, Shaheen pointed me to one of his interviews in another publication. “Technically there is no need of a federal censor board,” he says in that article, followed by: “There is no need to censor a film from all three censor boards when it is already (done) by any one of them.”

Speaking to me again on the phone, I ask Shaheen if that is legislatively possible. “According to the ‘Law of Endorsement’, it is entirely possible,” he responds. “I’ve legally looked into the matter and it is entirely possible.”

Shaheen explains that the three censor boards sign a mutual agreement where, if one censor board agrees to pass or ban a film, the other boards would not contest that decision.

“My suggestion is this: if Islamabad says that a film is banned, we would abide by their judgment, and ban it as well. If we pass it, then they too would pass it without objections. If Punjab [passes judgement], we would endorse that. In fact, we will not even bring that film to our censor board so that the distributor would save costs.”

Shaheen says that he leaves the choice to submit the film to any of the three censor boards on the individual producer. “I’m looking at the big picture,” he says.

In my research, I have yet to find such a ‘Law of Endorsement’ that would, in theory, have the wherewithal to overthrow the 18th Amendment.

A mutual agreement, on the other hand, could be an option — but only if all three censor boards agree to relinquish a portion of their authority.

In an earlier conversation, Shaheen had suggested that the principal censor board of the country be shifted to the province that is spearheading the film industry. In simpler words, he meant SBFC should be the main censor board. Both past and present scenarios cannot come into play at once, Shaheen tells me in our last conversation. I fail to see Shaheen’s ‘big picture’ — but then again, I’m no lawyer.

On a common sense level, the first big impediment would be enacting an agreement of all three boards to have an open platform, where one party could, potentially, overshadow the others.

The second impediment is the pseudo-centralisation of a section of the provincial culture ministry — which would, again, lead to political showdowns (let’s not forget that Sindh is the only province where the reigning political party at the federal level doesn’t have its own government).

Thirdly, supposing that one board bans a film and the producer requests a full board or chooses to have the film reviewed in another board (as would be their right), and that second board clears the film, whose decision would take precedence in the matter — the one that banned the film or the one that supported its release? A third party would probably be requested to intervene and the producer would end up right where he started from.

Finally, how would the idea even float if it openly goes against the 18thAmendment? Frankly speaking, it’s a Catch-22 situation. But then again, I’m no lawyer.

Two separate sources tell me that Fawad Chaudhry, the Minister of Information, is already working hard to rationalise the overlap between the three censor boards. The federal government’s plans to consolidate the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), Pakistan Press Council (PPC), and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) into a single regulatory unit titled Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PMRA), have already drawn fire for its over-centralisation. Would film censorship also be incorporated into this?

For now nobody knows. Until there is some clarity, it seems like we are stuck with the mess.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 4th, 2018

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