It is glaring that the corporatization and centralization spree of the BJP government would spare no field of activity. After the PSUs, Railways, Road Transport, Education, Healthcare, Insurance, Electricity, Mining, Civil aviation, Defence production, Agriculture and Retail sale, it is now the turn of the entertainment sector. The government has decided that to merge all the branches of the Films Division (FD), Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF), National Film Archive of India (NFAI) and Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) with the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). The merger is slated to take place by January 2022. While FD, DFF, NFAI and CFSI are public funded institutions, NFDC is a corporate body.
Number of sudden and opaque announcements
Over the last 13 months, a number of sudden and opaque announcements by the Ministry of Information and broadcasting (MIB) are reflective of its disdain for the development of the industry to foster diversity of social culture and different views and outlooks and instead put profit as the sole objective. In November 2020, it decided to bring all the Over-the-Top (OTT) platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar, under its ambit. The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal was abolished in April 2020.The Tribunal used to hear the appeals filed by any filmmaker who was aggrieved by the order of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in respect of a film. Less than three months later, it announced to amend the Cinematograph Act, 1952 which puts into place a rigorous method of certifying films for public consumption- commercial films displayed in cinema halls and other public viewings. It is also responsible for the existence of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The amendments, inter alia, proposed that the Union government would be empowered to reconsider the certificate it has issued to a film if the government feels that it does not conform to the ‘Guiding Principles’ under Section 5B(1). Under the section, CBFC cannot certify media content that goes against the “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of the State, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence”. In essence, this amendment sought to revise the final verdict of the Censor Board notwithstanding the fact that all CBFC members, members of the advisory panel, and regional officers are appointed by the Union government. Thus, the Union government sought to have complete control over India’s media content and its censorship despite the CDFC already having various safeguards in place. Besides their draconian nature, all the orders had something else in common: They were taken without consulting the primary stakeholders, the filmmakers and aimed at constricting cinema. Curiously enough, the amendment proposition goes against a Supreme Court decision in 2000 that reduced the Union government’s power in media censorship, wherein the court ruled that the government cannot weigh in on cases which have already been reviewed and classified by the CBFC.
NFAI, FD, DFF and CFSI are institutions with a heritage
Secondly, the FD, DFF, CFSI and NFAI are institutions with a history having made stellar contributions to producing, disseminating and preserving the labour and creativity of diverse film cultures in the country. FD produces and distributes documentaries. It also hosts the annual Mumbai International Film Festival dedicated to documentaries, shorts and animation movies. The DFF organises different film festivals and awards, including the International Film Festival of India, the National Film Awards and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. The CFSI produces children’s films, while the Pune-based NFAI preserves the country’s cinematic heritage and is a valuable resource for students, researchers and scholars. It functions as a separate entity under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. All these flock there from around the world, looking for material from among the thousands of original prints – some from silent cinema – books, posters and clippings. On the contrary, NDFC, registered under the Companies Act, functions based on profit-generation objective. Obviously, the question arises how can such a corporate body undertake projects and tasks of a non-profit nature like preservation of archives of invaluable films? Moreover eminent film personalities believe that NFDC has become a dead institution and hence putting a non-functional organization at the helm is inexplicable.
Arguments put forth in favour of merger
Actress Hema Malini, former chairperson, NFDC, and now a BJP MP, for obvious reasons, sought to justify the decision of her political bosses. Let us quote her verbatim: ‘‘This is a timely decision of the Government. Reasonable convergence of activities and resources (of all four bodies) will not only lead to better coordination but this synergy will create balanced growth of Indian film industry, wherein feature films including content for over-the-top (OTT) platforms, children’s content, animation, short films and documentaries, will be made by a singular organisation. NFDC will work as an umbrella organisation, which will mean that film development, production, promotion and preservation of filmic content will all come under single management. This will save manpower engagement, operational expenditure and also financial wastage. NFDC has to make its road map and redraft its Memorandum of articles of Association to enhance its contribution to the film industry.’’
Resonating with her views, a member of the ‘Expert Committee On Review of Autonomous Bodies’ stated, ‘‘The content produced by these bodies couldn’t always be called quality. Since each one was producing and making films, there was a lot of duplication. There was also a lack of synergy. For instance, children’s film and content remains underutilised. The content hasn’t resonated with young audiences always. There will be focus on that area. With NFDC becoming an integrated body, resources can be used better. It will also focus on developing content for OTT and on making films and explore better ways to achieve its goals.’’
The government circle further argues that the merger would facilitate quicker decision-making and a growth trajectory guided by profitability and deliverables that reflect in the balance sheet of the company. Post-merger, NFDC would be able to monetise the existing assets and infrastructure of all the units. With an expanded asset base, NFDC will emerge a stronger institution that would be in a position to make bigger decisions in content creation than it has hitherto.
X-raying the arguments
Notable aspects of the arguments, if put in sequence, would be as follows:
(i) Single management ensures quicker decision-making, better coordination and the resultant synergy creates balanced growth of Indian film industry.
(ii) It will save manpower engagement (read downsizing with massive retrenchment), operational expenditure and also financial wastage.
(iii) This amalgamated whole would be governed by objective of profitability and also monetise assets and infrastructure units (meaning handing those over to private houses for commercial use).
Counter-arguments against the merger
In July 2021, when the BJP government first announced amendment to the Cinematographic Act, numerous Indian filmmakers wrote an impassioned letter to the government, expressing concerns that the amendment would endanger ‘‘freedom of expression and democratic dissent’’. More than 3000 persons eventually signed the letter. But the government did not reply to that letter. Again more than 850 eminent film personalities and activists sent another letter on 19 December 2021 wondering how could the government-appointed ‘High Powered Committee under Shri Bimal Julka, Chief Information Officer, submit its report without engaging the primary stakeholders and demanding that
A) ‘‘Public funded institutions like FD, NFAI and CFSI must not be merged with a corporation like NFDC.’’
B) ‘‘Transparent and open’’ consultations should be made with the ‘‘various stakeholders including filmmakers and employees’’ of the four affected bodies. Those state-run organisations should have ‘‘full autonomy, enhanced state funding, and commitment to their original mandates.’’
C) ‘‘The government must declare the FD, NFAI and CFSI archives as national heritage – funded by public money and belonging to the general public” – and it must protect the archives and “give written assurances in the Parliament that they will not be sold or auctioned either now or in the future.’’
As is known to all, the archives of FD and NFAI hold within them not just cultural history of the country but also the visual history of arts, society, and historical events since 1947. Why would that kind of material be under the control of a for-profit entity?
The signatories also expressed concerns and anxieties of the employees working at the four public institutions. A senior FD official, on the condition of anonymity, said to a media house that more than 400 employees, across different organisations and cities, would bear the impact. ‘‘These are people with whom one has worked over the years, known them, and values them’’ he said. ‘‘They were performing a particular role; they’ve spent their lifetimes working in these institutions. Is it fair to all the employees of these organisations, which will be all dismantled and brought under the NFDC?’’, he added. According to film experts, bringing all these bodies under one spectrum is seemingly impractical a proposition because they have their own heritage, own ways of functioning. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a celebrated award-winning film director holds that ‘‘So far the government’s approach to cinema has been exceedingly negative. Disbanding the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, the plans to introduce super censoring, and now the merger move. All these self-contained institutions will be crushed under the heavyweight of the leviathan that the government is trying to create. No wonder, in the four decades since its inception, the NDFC has been on course of steady decline and has by now clearly distanced itself from film business. It is strange that the government is now planning to saddle it with a heavy load of functions the incumbent is hardly capable of performing even if it is blessed with loads of funds. It looks like someone’s weird, impulsive idea of bringing a comatose NFDC back to life. All these smack of distrust of film people who are creative and free-minded. A democratic government should spread conducive vibes rather than turn oppressive and punitive.’’
The design is of fascistic autocracy
It is therefore clear that these very moves are purported to regiment film production through centralized control, subversion of autonomy of the public institutions, introduce so called asset monetization concept, a backdoor entry to privatization, to the institutions of national heritage and view all and sundry activities from profit motive. Already, we are aware that while many vulgar and obscene films as well as films promoting obscurantism and bigotry are given clearance for exhibition, any production that in any way goes against the arch communal Hindutva doctrine and the ongoing attempt to glorify a distorted history of the nation is forced into withdrawal. With preservation of old records and archives as well as restoration of the classics being now under definite threat in the commercial environment, people, particularly the young generation, would be disconnected from history.
For example, the NFAI, which was set up in 1964 to archive Indian cinema history did a commendable job in preserving Indian cinema history by refurbishing the prints of Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian film made in 1913 and the first talkie, Alam Ara, filmed in 1931. Now, instead of expanding it, the government is out to diminish, if not eliminate, its existence thereby causing a deep injustice to the huge volumes of films produced in the country. It is evident that the NFDC would now be used to meddle with both the form and content of the films and hunt for profit maximization. The monopoly houses and the underworld which are now virtually having monopoly in film production would get further impetus to serve bundles of ‘trash and rubbish” in the name of entertainment on either big screen or OTT platform whereas the serious filmmakers, those who refuse to align with the mainstream cinema would be put to disadvantage by design.
Earlier, state governments used to come forward to help such sombre filmmakers and many of those films were a running success because of wider acceptability among the audience. Many such films fetched international awards as well. But that supportive role of the governments is now to be virtually disbanded. Instead surfeit of junk productions would dominate to break the moral backbone of the nation, sink the countrymen into religious blindness, destroy their rational thought process as well as aesthetic sense or capacity to appreciate true beauty and thus reduce the cinematic art into a rotten stuff. This is what the ruling fascist autocracy is aiming at. All art-loving people, intelligentsia and cultural activists ought to unitedly rise against this sinister gameplan and foil it.
(source: Deccan Chronicle 08-07-21, Hindustan Times 27-12-21, Indian Express 29-12-21, The Wire 03-01-22, First Post 12-01-22)