In 1920, barely seven years after the first feature film was made in India, the then British government decided to impose censorship on films. The obvious reason was to stymie any kind of political dissent or nationalist fervour. No surprise that the initial censors were under the police department. Little attention was paid to depiction of sex. Action films were few and far between till '40s and the censors were mainly concerned with any attempt to subvert the government or of display of patriotism (nationalism).
In 1952, the Cinematograph Bill was passed, which created the Central Board of Film Certification headquarters in Mumbai. Soon it developed a more puritanical approach which shunned any kind of sex or violence on screen. The board functioned under the ministry of information and broadcasting and most chairmen and members were political appointees with a few social activists thrown in.
Over time, the censor board became a parking ground for government favourites. And it has remained so till date. Of its 26 chairpersons, so far, perhaps only six or seven can be called distinguished or deserving. The usual cuts were on love scenes (kissing and nudity were banned) and fight scenes. So filmmakers used highly exaggerated cinematic devices. Superstition or religion was generally ignored and maybe in 60 years, only a dozen odd films would have been denied certificate so far.
However, I have personally experienced the whimsical attitude of various board members. They (the examining committee in particular) try to impose their morality and social behaviour on film makers. Most of the time they vacillate between laxity and strictness, interpreting guidelines in an arbitrary rather than a subjective way.
CBFC had its most notorious era during the Emergency, where not only films, but even actors and singers were blacklisted and harassed. Stupid guidelines like a film could not have more than six action sequences of 90 seconds each or show blood was implemented.
The recent fracas and subsequent en masse resignation by the board over a ruling which overturned their decision to ban the film Messenger of God by the self-styled god man Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan is much hullaballoo about nothing. The present set up of film certification is arbitrary and outdated. All board and regional panel members in the last 60 years have been political appointees and the I&B ministry has willy-nilly controlled the board through direct or indirect interventions.
There have been several court cases on the whole issue of censorship, including a pending one about depiction of smoking in films. In 2013, the government of India set up a committee under Justice (Retd) Mukul Mudgal to recommend changes in the film certification process. After detailed discussions with various stakeholders and public interest groups, the committee submitted its report in October 2013 and it gathers dust in Shastri Bhawanever ever since.
In a digital world, where more and more people are accessing various kinds of content online, it is anachronistic to pre-censor films. In the years to come, the amount of video content which will be generated will be so humongous that even to screen it before a board will be impossible. Not only is censorship repugnant to the tenets of freedom of expression, it is also regressive in its approach. In any case, the government will always have the right to stop any screening under extreme conditions even without a CBFC.
It's time to say goodbye to the censor board unless we want to be a fundamentalist or totalitarian state.