October 4, 2022

A Tale of Four Cities: When pre-censorship was first challenged in India

This was the case of khwaja ahmad abbas. (K A abbas v. Union of India[1]). K.A. Abbas was a journalist, playwright and writer of the short stories and also the producer of cinematograph films. Abbas produced in 1968 a documentary film in 2 reels (running time 16 minutes) called a ‘Tale of Four Cities’.

In this film he purported to contrast the luxurious life of the rich in the four cities of calcutta Bombay, Madras and Delhi, with the squalor and poverty of the poor, particularly those whose hands and labour help to build beautiful cities, factories and other industrial complexes.

 But censor board objected on certain shots and asked to delete the same if he required a ‘U’ (unrestricted public exhibition).

Before talking further, it is relevant here to know a little about the movie.

A Tale of Four Cities

The film is in black and white and is silent except for a song which the labourers sing while doing work and some background music and sounds for stage effect. The film, in motion sequences or still shots, shows contrasting scenes of palatial buildings, hotels and factories–evidence of the prosperity of a few, and shanties, huts and slums–evidence of poverty of the masses.

These scenes alternate and in between were other scenes showing sweating labourers working to build the former and those showing the squalid private life of these labourers. Some shots mix people riding in lush motor cars with rickshaw and handcart pullers of Calcutta and Madras.

In one scene a fat and prosperous customer is shown riding a rickshaw which a decrepit man pulls, sweating and panting hard.

In a contrasting, scene the same rickshaw puller is shown sitting in the rickshaw, pulled by his former customer. This scene is the epitomisation of the theme of the film and on view are the statutes of the leaders of Indian Freedom Movement looking impotently from their high pedestals in front of palatial buildings, on the poverty of the masses.

On the boulevards the rich drive past in limousines while the poor pull rickshaws or handcarts or stumble along.

There is included also a scanning shot of a very short duration, much blurred by the movement of the photographer’s camera, in which the red light district of Bombay is shown with the inmates of the brothels waiting at the doors or windows. Some of them wear abbreviated skirts showing bare legs up to the knees and sometimes a short way above them. This scene was perhaps shot from a moving car because the picture is unsteady on the screen and under exposed. Sometimes the inmates, becoming aware of the photographer, quickly withdraw themselves. The whole scene barely lasts a minute.

Then we see one of the inmates shutting a window and afterwards we see the hands of a woman holding some currency notes and a male hand plucking away most of them leaving only a very few in the hands of the female. The two actors are not shown. The suggestion in the first. scene is that a customer is being entertained behind closed shutters and in the next sequence that the amount received is being shared between the pimp and the prostitute, the former taking almost the whole of the money.

The sequence continues and for the first time the woman who shut the window is again seen. She sits at the dressing table, combs her hair, glances at two love-birds in a cage and looks around the room as if it were a cage. Then she goes behind a screen and emerges in other clothes and prepares for bed. She sleeps and dreams of her life before she took the present path.

The film then passes on to its previous theme, of contrasts mentioned above, often repeating the earlier shots in juxtaposition as stills. There is nothing else in the film to be noticed either by us or by the public for which it is intended. [2]

Hurdles in Unrestricted Certification

K.A. Abbas applied to the Board of Film Censors for a ‘U’ certificate for unrestricted exhibition of the film. He received ‘A’ and a letter (December 30, 1969) by which the Regional Officer informed him that the Examining Committee and the Board had provisionally come to the conclusion that the film was not suitable for unrestricted public exhibition but was suitable for exhibition restricted to adults.

He was given a chance to make representations against the tentative decision within 14 days. Later he was informed that the Revising Committee had reached the same conclusion.

He represented by letter (February 18, 1969) explaining the purpose of the films as exposing the exploitation of man (or woman) by man’ and the contrast between the very rich few and the very poor masses. He claimed that there was no obscenity in the film. He was informed by a letter (February 26, 1969) that the Board did not see any reason to alter its decision and the petitioner could’ appeal within 30 days to the Central Government.

 The petitioner appealed the very next day. On July 3, 1969, the Central Government decided to give a ‘U’ certificate provided the following cuts were made in the film:

“Shorten the scene of woman in the red light district, deleting specially the shot showing the closing of the window by the lady, the suggestive shots of bare knees and the passing of the currency notes.”

Because, this scene deals with the relations between the sexes in such a manner as to depict immoral traffic in women and soliciting, prostitution or procuration. It is undesirable that a certificate for unrestricted public exhibition shall be granted in respect of a film depicting a story, or containing incidents unsuitable for young persons.

Deletion of scene is violation of fundamental right of Free speech

Aggrieved by the finding of the board and the suggestion to cut the scene, Abbas filed a petition claiming that his fundamental right of free speech and expression was denied by the order of the Central Government. He claimed a ‘U’ certificate for the film as of right.

‘U’ Certificate for the Film

When Abbas filed the petition, Attorney general appeared before the court and stated that Government had decided to grant a ‘U’ certificate, to the film without the cuts previously ordered.

But, despite the granting of ‘U’ certificate, Abbas asked the court to be allowed to amend the petition so as to be able to challenge pre -censorship itself as offensive to freedom of speech and expression and alternatively the provisions of the Act and the rules, orders and directions under the Act, as vague, arbitrary and indefinite.

 Supreme Court allowed the application for amendment with the reasoning that a person who invests his capital in promoting or producing a film must have clear guidance in advance in the matter of censorship of films even if the law of pre-censorship be not violative of the fundamental right.

What Supreme Court Decided in Abbas’s Case and pre-censorship in India?

Supreme Court examined the question of pre-censorship in detail as it was the first case, in which censorship was challenged.

Speaking for the bench, Justice Hidayatullah reached on the conclusion that,

“Censorship in India (and pre-censorship is not different in quality) has full justification in the field of the exhibition of cinema films…The censorship imposed on the making and exhibition of films is in the interests of society. If the regulations venture into something which goes beyond this legitimate opening to restrictions, they can be questioned on the ground that a legitimate power is being abused. We hold, therefore, that censorship of films including prior restraint is justified under our Constitution.”

And by allowing the petition and holding that pre-censorship allowed in India, Supreme Court disposed the petition.


[1] 1971 AIR 481

[2] As reviewed by Honorable Supreme court of India