(Note: This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in the October-December 2013 edition of The Indian Quarterly magazine.)
HEADLINE: CENSORS’ TRIP
It’s been so many years since we routinely saw the birds and the bees, couples disappearing behind bushes, and flowers snuggling up to each other as young love bloomed on the Indian big screen, that some of us may have forgotten what that looks like.
Today, when heroes and heroines kiss, the camera doesn’t shyly avert its gaze. When they’re getting some action between the sheets, those sheets still rarely slide away to reveal naked bodies; but, thankfully, nor is viewer attention always diverted to a smouldering fireplace, lightning flashes or statues of marble gods.
Although some larger-than-life heroes continue to vanquish platoons of villains single-handedly with nary a bruise to show for it, realism too is now mainstream. Usually when celluloid cops and robbers fire guns, heroes need help from friends, blood spurts out on screen, necks are broken, skulls crack open and even leading men die. Dons don’t just mouth grandiose dialogues; they spew cuss words. College kids swear. Street thugs abuse. People kiss. Sex happens.
In the entertainment industry’s battle with India’s censorship regimes, 2013 is light years ahead of the turn of this century when director Anurag Kashyap’s Paanch was banned by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for featuring what was then considered too much sex, violence and drug abuse (it was later cleared though not released, but that’s a different story).
If Paanch were to be scrutinised by the CBFC today, chances are it would be okayed with no cuts and an A (Adults Only) rating. More to the point, Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur Parts 1 and 2, overflowing as they are with blood, guts and filthy-tongued, sexually active men and women, would perhaps have been barred from release a decade back, yet in 2012 they passed muster.
Years of anger have blinded liberal Indian film buffs to this glaring new reality: that the present CBFC under Leela Samson is unarguably the most open-minded censor board we’ve had in decades, that sex is no longer taboo in Indian films, extreme violence no longer automatically invites a ban and colourful invectives are passed without cuts in most A-rated films these days. Hold on to the champagne bottles though.
Despite the dramatic new liberalism of the past half decade or so, the CBFC remains inconsistent. Its examining committees in southern India are notoriously more conservative than their counterparts elsewhere. And television entertainment—which is not governed by the CBFC—is ruled by an often laughable mindlessness: a combination of self-regulation by channels, the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s guidelines and the industry’s own Broadcasting Content Complaints Council.
There can be no better example of this than a recent instalment of the American legal TV series, The Practice, which Fox Crime is rerunning in India. “Arabs and *#@$!*s . . .,” went a character at the start of that episode aired on October 4, 2013. A single mention of *#@$!*s might have escaped attention, but then it happened again. And again. It didn’t require lip-reading expertise to guess the word blanked out throughout that hour, even in the accompanying subtitles. The irony is that the entire episode was spent condemning America’s legal system and society for their open anti-Muslim discrimination since 9/11. So who was this censorship intended to please?
Just months earlier, viewers of another US series, Homeland, had to suffer the word “mosque” being muted on Star World India. Since Homeland revolves around a US military man released after being held prisoner by Al Qaeda, the mention of mosques is inevitable, but reason clearly did not drive that decision.
Even more bizarre is the disconnect between the regulation of films, TV and radio content. The CBFC passed Aamir Khan’s production, Delhi Belly, in 2011 with an A rating and no cuts. It was an uncommon victory at the time for artistic freedom in India considering that the film was littered with foul language and bedroom humour.
Everybody’s a winner here, or so you’d think: adults get to watch what they wish, parents receive ample warning to keep children away and a director’s work is not tampered with. Here’s the odd thing though: the film’s promos featuring the song “Bhaag DK Bose”—a play on one of north India’s crassest street curses—ran all day on radio for weeks, inevitably exposing children to the very language the censor board sought to protect them from in the film.
Equally ironic are the goings-on on the small screen. Some sex scenes in American soaps are chopped out to suit Indian community standards. Fair enough. The irony is that discussions on sex dominate many such shows, but since they’re aired at all times of the day, the names of body parts and abuses are routinely muted in the most unthinking fashion.
Common sense and liberal logic suggest that instead of muting such words, broadcasters should formulate a voluntary ratings system with the certification appearing before the start of each show so that parents can decide whether or not to allow a child to watch.
The US has a good template that we could adapt for the Indian television audience. G, as it does in the US, could mean the content is suitable for everyone. PG could mean parental guidance is recommended for relatively mild reasons. PG-13 would suggest that parental discretion is strongly advised for under-13s. Take that further to PG-15, PG-17/18 and so on; restrict the more strongly rated shows to late-night slots and you have a system which helps parents, does not ruin the viewing experience for adults and does not insult the intelligence of children either.
Until that happens, what you will get are scenarios such as this: “Son of a *@#%& . . . son of a *@#%& . . . son of a *@#%&,” said a character repeatedly in an excerpt from the American show Key and Peele, which recently aired during the day on Comedy Central. Apparently, someone out there thinks Indian children are stupid and ignorant, and they cannot lip-read.
Photographs courtesy: (1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delhi_Belly_(film) (Delhi Belly) (2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gangs_of_Wasseypur (Gangs of Wasseypur 1)
Note: These photographs of Delhi Belly & Gangs of Wasseypur 1 were not published in The Indian Quarterly.