Last week, when Star Movies made a quiet return to television screens in Mumbai, the first movie that it played on air was Babe, a story of a talking pig called Babe. It ran at midnight, unusual for a time slot traditionally dedicated to more adult fare. The movie was a safe, inoffensive return for the channel that had spent months off air after the Mumbai police enforced, in August 2006, a high court order prohibiting adult content on television.
Star’s return with Babe is a reflection of the caution with which channels are adjusting to an environment in which censorship laws aren’t just tough, but enforced. It is also a reflection of the lengths to which channels are willing to go to ensure that they get to do business in India. Of India’s 212 million households, 118 million have television sets, and 68 million of these, cable access.
Last month, AXN, an entertainment channel that is part of Sony Entertainment Television, was banned by the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry for two months, until 15 March, for running a show titled The World’s Sexiest Advertisements, which was broadcast a year ago. I&B minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi said the programme was “likely to adversely affect public morality”. Kunal Dasgupta, the CEO of Sony Entertainment Television, called the ban “unfair”.
“It was unfair in the sense that given that the channel was willing to apologize , the government could have fined it, rather than take it off, which is a pretty strong thing to do,” said Dasgupta. But activists who have fought for inoffensive content on television believe otherwise.
Pratiba Naitthani, a Xavier’s College professor, who, according to a report in The Indian Express, “almost broke into a jig” when the Mumbai high court ordered channels to get their content approved by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), said the authorities had finally recognized the law.
With channels keen to not get on the wrong side of the law, there’s a logjam at CBFC. “The process of applying for clearances from the censor board (as CBFC is popularly called) takes time,” said Ajay Vidyasagar, the executive vice-president of Star India, which owns Star Movies.
The situation is even more critical for MTV, which said that it is broadcasting only 15% of its music videos. “The consumer has lost out on some interesting music content that you and I would love to hear because it is not certified,” said Amit Jain, the managing director of MTV Networks India.
The jam apart, there’s a growing feeling in India’s broadcast industry that the I&B ministry is now overactive. A broadcast bill proposed by the ministry in 2006 raised an uproar when it became clear that the government would have sweeping power over the media, including restricting its investments in new projects. It proposes to set up a regulator, the Broadcasting Regulatory Authority of India, which, according to a draft of the bill, could cancel a channel’s registration if its content was “likely to threaten the security and integrity of the State or threaten peace and harmony or public order in the whole or part of the country”.
The bill is expected to be discussed in the next session of Parliament.
Publicly, channel representatives admit that the ministry’s present stance is correct. “We ran a programme that the government found unacceptable, and warnings were given,” said Dasgupta. “We have been errant on the policy.”
It’s a question that has channels in a fix: What is too much? Dasgupta says channels have internal processes, but what constitutes appropriate content is too subjective. “Straightforward obscenity is easy to determine,” said Dasgupta, “but borderline stuff isn’t.”
But because the responsibility lies solely with the channel, they’re beginning to play it safer than ever before. In 2006, MTV played a racy promo of the movie, Aashiq Banaya Aapne, which was pulled off when a channel executive saw it. But the ministry noticed it and gave the channel a warning.
Alarmed that the I&B ministry was now involved, the channel revamped its internal censorship structure.
“We had to be that much more responsible,” says Phalguni Sampat, whose card describes her as ‘director on air’. “Now nothing goes on air without someone signing it. That’s one filter.”
So, safety first is the most common policy.
“Recently, this brand called Gen X (a condom manufacturer) sent us a commercial, with a letter saying that it was playing on other channels,” says Phalguni. “On the one hand, we didn’t want to lose out on the money, but we took a call that we’d have to let it go. You never know with the I&B ministry, with all due respect to it.”
Privately, however, executives in the industry criticize the ministry for not being clear about censorship. “There’s too much waffling around at their end,” said one spokesperson, “though when they called up to warn us, they were civil about the whole thing.” The executives themselves are not sure of certain things. Some say a ruling dating back to 2002 prohibits any adult content on air. Others says they could air adult content after 11pm.
In January, IBN7 and Sahara National were sent notices for broadcasting a Youtube clip showing a Mahatma Gandhi lookalike doing a pole dance. The government took exception to it. Dasmunsi said it was “an assault to the dignity of the father of the nation”. He asked the ministry to take necessary action. That is an example of why the gray area is yet so large: A number of decisions are emotional, not rational. Jain asked, “What can you control, and what is it that you can’t? Are you going to censor the Internet? Where do you draw the line?”