Authorities concerned with film certification must take care of social change. [Bobby Art International and Others v. Om Pal Singh Hoon and Others]

Bobby Art International and Others v. Om Pal Singh Hoon and Others, (1996) 4 SCC 1

Before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India

Decided on- May 1, 1996

Bench- A. M Ahmadi, C.J., S. P Bharucha and B. N Kirpal., JJ.

Facts in concern-

  • The case involves the revoking of the film certification that was granted under the Cinematography Act, 1952 to a film titled ‘Bandit Queen’, movie based on the real-life incident which is based on a book written by Mala Sen titled as ‘India’s Bandit Queen’. The book has been on the market since 1991 without any objections.
  • The film, for the first time i.e. on 31-8-1995, was screened with English subtitles, at the Siri Fort Auditorium on the occasion of the 27th International Film Festival of India with due permission of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and was open for public viewing at various cinema theaters in the country, 25-01-1996 onwards.
  • A writ petition was subsequently filed before the Delhi High Court on 27-1-1996 seeking to quash the certificate granted to the film and to restrain its exhibition in India claiming a violation of fundamental rights of the respondent. The respondent being a Hindu and a Gujjar by caste felt aggrieved because the film depicted the petitioner and his community as rapists and the use of the name Babu Gujjar for the principle villain lowered the reputation of the Gujjar community.
  • The writ petition was allowed by the Single Judge bench and that the certificate granted to the film was quashed. Also, the divisional bench, under appeal, upheld the view taken by the learned Single Judge.

Background of the case-

  • The film deals with the life of one Phoolan Devi, who when a child was married off to a man old enough to be her father and was under constant domestic violence. She was even pestered by the local boys in the village and beaten when she foiled the advances made by one of them. She was called forth before the Village Panchayat for attempting to entice a boy who belonged to a higher caste. She subsequently had to leave the village.
  • She was then arrested by police and was subjected to indignity and humiliation in the police custody. Soon thereafter, she was kidnapped by dacoits and sexually brutalized by their leader, Babu Gujjar. A man of the same gang, Vikram Mallah shot Babu Gujjar dead in a fit of rage while Phoolan Devi was being assaulted.
  • One Sri Ram, the leader of a gang of Thakurs killed Vikram Mallah and then gang-raped Phoolan Devi with Lalaram and others.
  • Subsequently, she was stripped naked, paraded and made to fetch water from the village well under the gaze of the villagers, none of whom came to her rescue.
  • To avenge herself upon her persecutors, she joined a dacoits’ gang headed by Baba Mustkin and avenged herself upon Sri Ram, she humiliated and killed twenty Thakur of the village of Behmai. Lastly, she surrendered herself and was in jail for a number of years.

Findings of the Tribunal-

  • The Tribunal opined that the film is a portrayal both physical and mental humiliations heaped on Phoolan Devi since her childhood and the tone and tenor of the dialogues in this film reflect the nuances locally and habitually used. It didn’t find anything to be sensual or sexual about the expletives used and essentially represent the emotions such as anger, rage, frustration and also the color of the various locales of the film.
  • Towards the argument for deleting the scene where a policeman is shown hitting Phoolan Devi with the butt of a gun, the Tribunal opined that the deletion would negate the very impact of this film in its endeavour to depict the maltreatment and cruelty heaped upon the victim by the perpetrators, which resulted in the former turning her face against, and seeking revenge for her humiliation and degradation and that deletion would have a deleterious effect on the powerful sequences which follow, as it would also leave the audience bewildered as to the intensity of the bitterness the victim rightly feels towards her tormentors.
  • Further, the emphasis was made towards the fact that Phoolan Devi was shown being nakedly paraded in the village after being humiliated and to this, the Tribunal observed that ‘these visuals could but create sympathy towards the unfortunate woman in particular and revulsion against the perpetrators of crime against women in general.
  • In another sequence which was in three parts, the Tribunal directed that the second of the three sequences be deleted altogether, and that there be a reduction be by 30% of the first sequence and by 20% of the third sequence, with the qualification that the visuals of the man’s bare posterior in the first and the third sequences be reduced to a flash. The exception was taken before the Tribunal to the direction to reduce by 70% the sequence of Phoolan Devi torturing her husband.

Findings of the Divisional Bench-

  • The Divisional Bench upheld the view of the learned Single Judge and opined that the scene of total frontal nudity from top to toe was ‘indecent’ within Section 5-B and Article 19(2).
  • Further, it in a way disregarded the view as laid by the Tribunal and held it to be inconsistent. It also opined that the scene of violent rape was disgusting and revolting and it denigrated and degraded women. In totality, the Divisional Bench was of the view that the Tribunal’s order was vitiated by the use of the wrong tests.

Submissions of the Appellants-

  • The learned counsel for the appellants submitted that the film had been scrutinized by the Tribunal, which was an expert body constituted for such purpose, and it had passed the test of such scrutiny. The counsel further emphasised on the fact that three members out of the four-member Tribunal were ladies and they didn’t find anything offensive and that the guidelines required the film to be seen as a whole and when seen as a whole, did not offend either Section 5-B or the guidelines.
  • It was further opined that the machinery under the Cinematography Act was only for those who had some concern with the making of the film and that the citizens who were offended by it were free to approach the High Court under Article 226.


  • Reference has duly been made to the case of A Abbas v. The Union of India, wherein due relevance was found to have been given to the fact that the elements of rape, leprosy, sexual immorality should not attract the censor’s scissors but rather should be aimed at essentially the way the producer handles it. The cinematography is said to be a powerful means and that its appeal is different. Viewing a documentary on the erotic tableaux from ancient temples with equanimity or read the Kamasutra but considering a documentary from them as a practical sex guide abhorrent is inconsistent.
  • Furthermore, the judgment of Justice Krishna Iyer in Raj Kapoor v State, has been referred to wherein it was noted that ‘art, morals, and law’s manacles on aesthetics are a sensitive subject where jurisprudence meets other sciences and never goes alone to bark and bite because state-made strait-jacket is an inhibitive prescription for a free country unless enlightened society actively participates in the administration of justice to aesthetics’.
  • Similarly in reference to many other similarly decided cases, it has been opined that the guidelines as mentioned have been laid, has been laid with due care. It requires the authorities concerned with film certification to be responsive to the values and standards of the society and take note of the social change. The film should be ‘judged in its entirety from the point of view of the overall impact and the light of the period depicted and the contemporary standards of the people it relates and that it should not deprave the morality of the audience.
  • The Hon’ble Court opined that the film levels an accusing finger at members of the society who had tormented Phoolan Devi and driven her to become a dreaded dacoit filled with the desire to revenge. It further stated that the object behind the depiction of such nudity was not to titillate the cinemagoer’s lust but to arise in his sympathy for the victim and disgust for the perpetrators. Also, the revulsion that the Tribunal referred to was not at Phoolan Devi’s nudity but at the sadism and heartlessness of those who had stripped her naked to rob her of every shred of dignity. It has evidently been opined that the nakedness does not always arouse the baser instinct.
  • It laid emphasis on understanding the circumstances which led Phoolan Devi to become what she did and that rape and sex are not being glorified in the film but rather what it shows is terrible and terrifying and the impact it leaves on the victim. It focuses on the trauma and emotional turmoil of the victim to evoke sympathy for her and disgust for the rapist.
  • It also opined that a film that illustrates the consequences of a social evil must show that evil.
  • The Court upheld the view taken by the Tribunal and further allowed the appeal and set aside the judgment and order under appeal, thereby dismissing the first respondent’s writ petition.
  • The ‘A’ certificate issued to the film, ‘Bandit Queen’ upon the conditions imposed by the Appellate Tribunal is restored and that the first respondent is to pay each appellant the cost of his appeal.

(This brief was prepared and submitted to by Ritum Kumar, Student at Lloyd’s Law College- Greater Noida.) 

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