Legality of Censorship of Movies in India – A Closer Look

What is Censorship?

The word censorship has been derived from the Latin word “censere,” which means to express one’s opinion. Both written and verbal communication can be censored. Censorship can be applied to publications that are judged to be offensive, indecent, obscene, and/or sexually explicit, such as books, magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, movies, comedies, plays, speeches, dance, music, art, literature, photographs, mails, emails, websites, etc.

There are different forms of censorship that is in practice. They are:

  • Preventive censorship which is practised before it is made public. It consists of self- censorship, government licencing restrictions that are done in advance as well as licensing.
  • The other type of censorship is punitive which is exercised after it is made public.

Aim of Censorship:

The main goal of censorship is to maintain the public order by controlling the information that is regarded as objectionable and includes sensitive content that may harm the public.

It is also focused to maintain social order in the society and prevents the spreading of false information. In addition, it tries to protects the marginalised groups that can be affected by sensitive content and create an environment that is safe for them.

Constitutionality of Censorship:

Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution states that “all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression”.[1] However this freedom is not absolute. They are subject to “reasonable restrictions” for certain purposes which are imposed under Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India. It reads:

Article 19(2) – Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”[2]

As mentioned earlier, few of the aims of censorship are to maintain public order and protect interests of certain affected groups and so on. Thus, if the need arises based on the circumstances of the case in question, the respective authorities can censor the content and they would be protected under and based on the reasonable restrictions.

Thus, every form of censorship is not violative of the constitutional values. As long as they can be proved under the reasonable restrictions, the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) is not violated.

Censorship of Movies:

In the modern age, films hold a great deal of power to influence the society. It is an effective way of communicating different ideas. With the advent of technology and science, cinema has undergone a drastic change which makes it more widespread and as a result is able to reach the masses. This makes it even more important for the movies to meet certain standards to avoid various issues that would stem from it like sharing false information, propagating ideas that would result in discord between communities of the society and so on.

Thus, the concept of censorship is extremely important so that it complies with the pre-determined guidelines. Censorship of movies is also important for the protection of children, so that they are not exposed to inappropriate content which is not suitable for their age. It is usually done by a certified classification board which classifies movies based on the age.

Regulation of Movies:

The need for an authority to regulate and approve of movies is thus evident. This brought about the enactment of The Cinematograph Act, 1952. It is an act “to make provision for the certification of cinematograph films for exhibition and for regulating exhibitions by means of cinematographs.”[3]

The regulatory body is known as the Central Board of Film Certification. This authority issues certificates for the movies so that the makers can present it to the public. After examining the film and its contents the Board can take the following actions:

(a) Sanction the film for unrestricted public exhibition;[4]
(b) Sanction the film for public exhibition restricted to adults;[5]
(c) Direct such excisions and modifications in the film before sanctioning the film to any unrestricted public exhibition or for public exhibition restricted to adults; and[6]
(d) Refuse to sanction the film for public exhibition.[7]

Judicial Precedents:

The concept of banning films has become common in the recent past. Few of the landmark judgments regarding the same are:

The case of K.A. Abbas v. Union of India[8], in which the validity of censorship under The Cinematograph Act, 1952 and the rules established under it were contested for the first time before the Supreme Court. The apex court in response held that a motion picture is “able to stir up emotions more deeply than any other product of art.” The bench also stated that films must be dealt with differently from other forms of art and expression in accordance with Article 19(2) of the Constitution. This restriction must be “in the interests of society”. If the power is abused, then the same must be questioned.

In Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram[9] the Madras High Court revoked the ‘U-Certificate’ issued to a Tamil film called ‘Ore Oru Gramathile’. The movie went on to win a National Award. The reservation policy in employment was criticised in the movie claiming it was unjust to Brahmins and was centred on caste. Through the course of the movie, it was argued that the criterion should be economic deprivation rather than caste. The High Court had ruled that because so many people in Tamil Nadu have endured hardship for so long, there was not a means to foresee how the public would respond to the movie. Additionally, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and a number of Tamil celebrities were the target of some insults.

The Supreme Court however overruled the High Court decision and upheld the freedom of speech and expression. It stated that “democracy is a government by the people via open discussion. The democratic form of government itself demands its citizens an active and intelligent participation in the affairs of the community.”[10]

The Kerala Story:

Recently, The Kerala Story is a film that has been under the spotlight. The storyline revolves around a group of women from Kerala who converted to Islam and joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The film has been criticised for purporting false information regarding the number of women who went through this process.

The Supreme Court rejected the plea to ban the film but allowed the High Courts to take a decision on the same. The High Courts of few states have rejected similar pleas like the Madras High Court and West Bengal became the first state to have banned the movie.


It is important to strike a healthy equilibrium between the freedom of speech and the responsibility to preserve social harmony. The Certification Board should be mindful of the same. Movies, a crucial medium for the display of ideas and unrestrained thought, must be unhindered by all forms of restriction. The fundamental human freedom to express one’s opinion in the community of civilised societies must not be restricted in any way. However, the way in which these concepts are disseminated must be kept in check. The process of expressing one’s opinions shouldn’t compromise the peace and security of the community, which is of utmost importance.

[1] INDIA CONST. art. 19, cl. 1(a)

[2] INDIA CONST. art. 19, cl. 2

[3] The Cinematograph Act, 1952

[4] The Cinematograph Act, 1952 §4(1)(i)

[5] The Cinematograph Act, 1952 §4(1)(ii)

[6] The Cinematograph Act, 1952 §4(1)(iii)

[7] The Cinematograph Act, 1952 §4(1)(iv)

[8] AIR 1971 SC 481

[9] (1989) 2 SCC 574

[10] (1989) 2 SCC 574

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