Mumbai: When 12 Years A Slave opens on 31 January, Indian audiences will be permitted to watch the film just as director Steve McQueen intended. While the acclaimed and Oscar-nominated period drama about slavery in the US has been given an adults-only certificate, as was expected, scenes of female frontal nudity and shots of bare male posteriors have been left in—a sign of the board’s willingness to permit the 18-years-and-above audience that will watch the film to be their own judges.

Indian censors have become far more relaxed about kissing and lovemaking in the movies in recent years, but complete nudity remains verboten. An adults-only certificate does not even guarantee partial nudity —the A-rated The Wolf of Wall Street had to shed over six minutes of exposure before it could be released in India. The nakedness in Martin Scorsese’s satire occurs during moments of uninhibited revelry, whereas in McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name, the unclothed body bears the scars of slavery in the US. Set in the antebellum south, the grim drama explores the often horrific experiences of Northup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold to cotton plantation owners. Forced stripping and beatings on bare flesh are among the tactics used by the plantation bosses and their henchmen to humiliate the slaves. After the examining committee that initially viewed the film ordered cuts, 12 Years A Slave was sent to a revising committee, which cleared it without tampering with McQueen’s vision. PVR Pictures, which is distributing the movie in India, declined comment.

A similar depiction of stripping to keep slaves in check was, however, excised from Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 revenge fantasy Django Unchained, in which the liberated slave Django rescues his wife Broomhilda from a cruel plantation owner. Set in the same period as 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained’s Indian version dropped a fleeting glimpse of Broomhilda, who has been denuded and thrown into a box as punishment. Another scene of a nude Django nearly being castrated was also snipped.

Another Oscar-nominated film, Dallas Buyers Club, which is scheduled to open in India on 28 February, didn’t manage to escape the Central Board of Film Certification’s (CBFC) scissors. Scenes of love-making in the A-rated movie, about an HIV positive cowboy from Texas who smuggles unapproved drugs to help himself and other patients, have been retained at half their length, while frontal female nudity has been axed.

Nudity is the final frontier, to be breached only in exceptional circumstances. In Shekhar Kapur’s Phoolan Devi biopic Bandit Queen (1994), the nude female body is seen in a long shot. Sometimes, partial nudity makes the cut, such as in Mani Kaul’s docu-fictional Siddheswari, about the acclaimed thumri singer Siddheswari Devi. There have been instances of bare-backed female actors in such films as Party and Kurbaan. Censors have also permitted female frontal nudity in Apocalypto and Rang Rasiya because of the contexts within which it occur (the first is a period film about the Mayan civilization, the other is a biopic of the painter Raja Ravi Varma). Of late, partial nudity has been blurred through computer technology to avoid the tedious process of cutting a film and re-submitting it for certification, as was the case in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Jail (the male lead’s bare bottom was pixelated) as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (in a fantasy sequence featuring naked people.)

Ashim Ahluwalia’s recently released A-rated Miss Lovely, about a pair of pornographic film-makers who supply the so-called “bit parts" (explicit scenes that are spliced into regular films), similarly blurred instances of female frontal nakedness. “The CBFC members wanted to delete the scenes, but I had seen The Master, so we argued that we could blur them instead," said Ahluwalia, whose film is set in the 1980s and is based on real-life characters. The unsanctioned and underground film-viewing culture, through which he trawls, existed outside the CBFC’s jurisdiction, he said. “The circulation of pornography is imprisonable in India, and in terms of the cinema, there has always been this conflict with the censor board," Ahluwalia said. “The bit parts, some of which had hardcore sex, were never censored, and the reels belonged to the theatre owners. There would be a phase when the CBFC guys would get the cinemas raided if there were complaints and confiscate the reels, it would die down, and then come back later."

The occurrence of sex in cinema has never failed to raise the temperatures of the censors, who argue that they are acting on behalf of the public. Members appointed to the CBFC’s examining committees that decide the fate of a film have to be sensitive to possible public outrage over explicit content, said a CBFC board member on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “Sometimes, there are two extreme positions—some people demand that there should be absolutely no cuts, while there are others who complain that the board has become too liberal," the member said.

Films with graphic content typically shed their length or, in some cases, don’t even get the screening certificate required to open in cinemas. Italian erotic comedy specialist Tinto Brass’s Frivolous Lola (2001) is just one of several sex-themed films that have been deemed as being beyond censorship, in a sense, and have been refused certification. The sexually explicit Bengali film Gandu, by Q, was made in 2010 specifically as a challenge to Indian censorship norms. Gandu hasn’t been screened anywhere in the country, nor has been Amitabh Chakraborty’s Cosmic Sex, made in 2012 and shown only at two film festivals in India.

Indian film-makers have resorted to suggestiveness, metaphors and leave-nothing-to-the-imagination depictions of the female body to sidestep censorship. Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Ram Teri Ganga Maili, for instance, indirectly suggest nudity through the low-cut and diaphanous costumes worn by the leading women. (Both films created a heated public debate and earned Kapoor reams of free publicity in the process.)

Indian censors have been historically suspicious both of directness and subtlety. In Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema (Permanent Black; 2011), American academic Monika Mehta examines the controversies that raged around Gupt Gyan, made by B.K. Adarsh in 1973. Described the country’s first sex education film, Gupt Gyan featured “diagrams of male and female organs, animated scenes of reproduction and still shots showing symptoms of venereal diseases" within the fictional narrative framework of a young man who becomes a sexologist after his brother and mother die of syphilis, writes Mehta. Various CBFC committees met to deliberate upon whether Adarsh intended to educate or to titillate. The film was released in 1974 but pulled out of cinemas after a few months, and then re-released with several cuts in 1977.

There is evidence from the days of the silent period, in the form of surviving prints, photographs and other archival material, that Indian film-makers and their audiences were far more permissive, by both design and accident. Lip-locking, especially, was widespread between the 1900s and the ’30s in the silent period, with the British censors focusing their attention on politically sensitive material. “Silent cinema belonged to a world that had nothing to do with middle-class morality, it was adapting to Hollywood cinema and was doing things according to that rationale," pointed out Kaushik Bhaumik, a silent-film historian and associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Arts and Aesthetics. “There was a lot of kissing as well as partial nudity and it was all fine." One of the examples was from the mythological Sati Anusuya, in which the actor Sakina breast-feeds her child. “The population that watched silent films had not been constituted as a public, and the educated middle class that was hovering on the margins didn’t see the cinema as a public space that threatened the value system of larger entities such as society and the nation," pointed out Bhaumik.

A telling example of how censors act on behalf of a perceived “public" is available in You Can’t Please Everyone! Film Censorship: The Inside Story (IBH, 1982). CBFC member Kobita Sarkar’s memoir reports the consternation caused by a lengthy kiss between an army recruit and his interpreter girlfriend in an unnamed foreign war film. Sarkar writes, “They kissed once, with moderate passion, and once more a trifle more ardently… It seemed harmless enough to me… One of the members, though, insisted that the second kiss must go… This view was seconded by another member. ‘What’s wrong with it?’ asked a third. ‘It’s too much!’ said the first person. ‘Why?" I asked, truly perplexed. ‘One kiss is enough,’ said the first member firmly." The second kiss was dropped.

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