In Hindi cinema, what’s ugly—physically or behaviourally—is profane. Even sacrilegious. There is almost no place for nuts and mavericks here. If at all, the maverick has to be virtuous, someone who protects or enlightens people. You remember Rancho, the pop philosopher, exceptionally bright engineer, loyal friend and midwife, all rolled into one impossible human being in 3 Idiots. The woman, if not motherly or modest, either has to have a change of heart or is doomed to loneliness in the end. Remember Simran, the alcoholic, impetuous girlfriend of a gangster in the 2006 film Gangster?
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There are many examples. Adulthood in 90% of the films released widely in India is a strangely sterilized state of being. Directors who make these films are obviously full-fledged adults with, I presume, tragic flaws of their own. Creation, therefore, is a process outside of themselves, dictated by the need for acceptance of their characters, conforming to “Bollywood tradition” and tailor-made formulas. Recently, I met a former regional officer, Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), Mumbai, to discuss a new draft proposal with Parliament that could alter the black and white structure of film ratings in India. He said, not entirely to my surprise, that in his five years at the CBFC, he had met few film-makers who really protested cuts. The consensus is: Cut as many scenes as you want, but don’t slap an “A” rating because that wouldn’t work with “family audiences”. The producer decides that and the director parrots the line.
So while censorship laws have always been an impediment to radical themes and styles in cinema reaching people, the need for conforming to the tried-and-tested, and hence self-censorship or auto-censorship, is an affliction with our film-makers. More so with cinema than other forms of art because it is all-encompassing, mass and economically lucrative—the temple of stars who can do no wrong and who can muster crowd hysteria like no other public figure can. Actor and producer are often one big self-serving mechanism.
Uncut: (from top) Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen; Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan; Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha; and Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution.
Exceptions to this rule have been few, but far-reaching. The past decade has seen an invigorated scriptwriter. Directors such as Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap and many others in Mumbai and in regional-language films, are free thinkers and stylists—films such as Dev.D, Manorama Six Feet Under, Love Sex aur Dhokha, and Udaan recently, among many others, have altered the “Bollywood” template.
But look at the norm: morality is secondary to imagination; it appears most directors and writers don’t look within or what’s around them when they make films. The visible change in mainstream commercial cinema, compared with a decade ago, is largely cosmetic—the technology, the unmistakable stamp of brand-saturated gloss or, sadly, of late, official remakes of lame Hollywood films. Audacious imagination is an oddity.
In this scenario, censorship laws and the CBFC act as unnecessary gags. The CBFC can rate a film either “A” or “U/A” (which allows children to watch everything as long it’s under parental guidance). The certification process is simple: The final cut goes for viewing to an examining committee that has an equal number of men and women. They need not be related to films or be educated in films to be members; most of them are “political posts”—for people known to politicians of the party in power.
After watching a film, the motley group arrives at a consensus about cuts and the rating. The director meets the committee, presents his case in favour of the scenes chosen for censorship if he wants to. If the director is not happy with the decision, he can appeal to the revision committee, which comprises many members from the film industry, for a verdict. The only Indian film which did not get a certificate from either of these committees and was allowed a theatrical release by the Supreme Court with cuts is Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen.
Verdicts are based on the provisions of the Cinematograph Act, 1952 (amended only once since then, in 1983). The fuzziness of the provisions makes them malleable to the examiner’s sensibility, which can be a good thing if the selection of members is a foolproof, rigorous or discerning process. The sweeping guidelines: Frontal nudity should be allowed with great caution; vulgarity should not be shown; human sensibility should not be violated. Go judge a film!
Documentaries go through the same process and the same guidelines apply to them. It’s an archaic way of judging non-fiction on film, which film-makers such as Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma have been protesting.
If the new Bill is passed, two new ratings, 12+ and 15+, will be introduced. This will make things easier not only for censors, but will also give film-makers more freedom—every kind of film will have a certified audience.
Even so, the biggest threats for film-makers, as for authors, are society’s belief or ideological groups. Undoubtedly, the most tragic and embarrassing moment for Indian films was on 30 January 2000. An angry crowd of Sangh Parivar and Hindu fundamentalist group supporters attacked the sets of director Deepa Mehta’s film Water at Tulsi Ghat, Varanasi. The film’s script, about a young widow in Varanasi, had been cleared by the information and broadcasting ministry before filming began. Eventually, the film was shot in another country.
As a piece of cinema, Water was not groundbreaking; it was a mediocre film with a subject that offended some Hindu zealots. Recently, Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan attracted the ire of the Shiv Sena for reasons that lay beyond the film’s content. The film’s actor, Shah Rukh Khan, had commented on the unjustness of not bidding for Pakistani cricketers in Indian Premier League auctions. They wanted to teach Khan a lesson. My Name is Khan, again, was not a great film with radical content, but the reasons for attacking it were shamefully undemocratic.
Here’s the only solution to such bigotry: Make more films which are bound to be scrutinized. Make original thought and imagination the benchmarks. Make more “Adult” films. And leave morality to be interpreted by the movie-watching public.
While in school in Assam, I remember watching an Assamese film called Agnisnan by director and writer Bhabendra Nath Saikia. It was about an alcoholic, philandering mill owner who marries a young girl from the village and brings her home to live with his first wife, an ordinary, dutiful woman. The first wife decides on revenge. She has sex with the son of the family’s servant, a young man she has always been fond of, and discovers she is pregnant. The young wife is also pregnant. In the end, the first wife tells her husband, “If I can live with a child which is yours and not mine, you can live with a child which is mine and not yours.”
I could understand the film at that time, but all my aunts were angry. Newspaper articles and editorials were either scathing, or they extolled the talented writer-director. But the film ran in theatres for days, and Saikia and the lead actor, Malaya Goswami, won National Awards. This was in 1985.
There are pioneering film-makers everywhere in India. One way to fight censorship is to allow them to show their work widely, so that the formula diminishes. And so that there is plenty of offence to rail against.