To see or not to see
The politics of movies in India
By Hiba Ahmad
If all it took was an ‘I’ and a few not so necessary cuts to settle the Padmavati fiasco, then there is a lot that is going wrong with the Indian cinema and more specifically, the Central Board of Film Certification. From Alam Ara to Tiger Zinda Hai, a lot has changed in terms of direction, production, acting methods, sets, story-line, audience etc but the most significant and rather unhinging development has been of the humongous rise of intolerance to expression of ideas that do not match one’s own; not just in film and theater but all forms of artistic expressions.
The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), earlier known as Central Board of Film Censors is a legal body for certification and censoring established to work in coherence with the provisions of Cinematographic Act of 1952, to regulate the presentation of films to the Indian audience. 2017 has been the year of movie controversies with the CBFC finding itself right in the middle of all chaos, be it with ordering 89 cuts in a movie exposing the drugs abuse high profile scandal of Punjab to not clearing a movie for being “too lady oriented.” Naturally there has been a rise of a common consensus among the cinema watching masses of the nation, of a need for change in the way Indian films are censored and certified.
"The cuts are based, not on standard rules of restriction of Freedom of Speech that the Act of 1952 permits, but have instead come to be influenced by the political and religious narratives prevalent in the nation."
A very general Google search on the kind of cuts that have been ordered by Pahlaj Nihlani, the ex-Chief of CBFC exposes a disconcerting picture of the irregularities that exist in the system of scrutinising the movies as well as a very conveniently subjective understanding of public morality. The cuts are based, not on standard rules of restriction of Freedom of Speech that the Act of 1952 permits, but have instead come to be influenced by the political and religious narratives prevalent in the nation. The State, rather than being an overarching power of scrutiny and ensuring reasonable freedom of expression to all, has been reduced to the hands of a few conservative, intolerant individuals who want to curb every voice that pokes holes in their beliefs or displays any events, characters or relationships that they deem unnatural.
“This unreasonable intervention of politics and religion has culminated into the controversies that are hogging the Indian Cinema currently.”
This unreasonable intervention of politics and religion has culminated into the controversies that are hogging the Indian Cinema currently. The failure of the state to create a safe space for artists and creativity has blurred the reality of who controls or checks the creative expression of artists. Any individual who dislikes a certain ideology and holds a certain amount of power feels entitled to not just express their dislike but also disrupt the other completely by playing the card of popular support. This entitlement reflects itself in the controversies of movies such as Padmavati, Udta Punjab, PK, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Angry Indian Goddesses and the like wherein a fringe religious or political group feels threatened by some scene, song or the storyline in general and rather than voicing their opinion, disrupt the peace of the nation, in an attempt to make the nation peaceful again.
"An example of this kind of paternalistic approach can be seen in the CBFC’s approach towards movies such as Fire or Sonata dealing with sensitive topics such as LGBTQ rights and relationships, which are deemed unnatural, corrupting and hence not worth discussing."
Any further discussion on entitlement demands a deeper inspection of where it stems from and why certain groups relish it and there are several explanations for that. First, despite India being a democracy, the people in power believe that not every individual in the nation is capable of making a sane choice because of the high levels of illiteracy that exist. This makes them feel superior to the masses and thus entitled to take the ‘correct decision’ for the people. An example of this kind of paternalistic approach can be seen in the CBFC’s approach towards movies such as Fire or Sonata dealing with sensitive topics such as LGBTQ rights and relationships, which are deemed unnatural, corrupting and hence not worth discussing.
Secondly, since the nation has a huge religious as well as a political majority, there is a fear that exists in the minds of all, a fear of going against the norms of the popular beliefs and disrupting the common sentiment. This kind of wave of fear allows the conservatives to create an illusion of an ideal and perfect society crushing any voice of dissent while no such action is taken when the minority community is derided in the same manner.
"In the face of so many problems with the current system of censorship which is not autonomous, but influenced by pressure and power, the question then becomes, do we need censorship at all?"
Thirdly, living in a patriarchal society automatically gives men a certain kind of entitlement which unless actively curbed, dominates the society. Since religion and politics are still spaces that men largely occupy, movies like Mastizaade find their way to screens nationwide with barely any cuts while movies like Lipstick Under my Burkha don’t. In the face of so many problems with the current system of censorship which is not autonomous, but influenced by pressure and power, the question then becomes, do we need censorship at all? When asked, the response to this question is a mixed one, where people go from wanting absolute freedom of expression to some reasonable restriction to a more specific categorization of movies.
What is important to remember is that every rule stems out of a necessity and the history of Indian cinema delineates the same. The Britishers imposed certain regulations on the content of the movies being made, because of their scepticism about the Indians using their native language and gestures to subvert the rule of the British. This system of censorship continued post-independence as well, as the state wanted to maintain harmony and peace in times of communal tensions and thus regulate any kind of art, movies specifically that might spark an outrage or riot.
The Way Ahead...
Times have changed, so has the society, but the answer to the question is still not a simple yes/no. But the motive of this article is not to find a singular answer to the question much like our films. Film certification instead of censorship allows the avenue to explore different questions. Constant censorship leads to a similar kind of tried and tested storytelling in cinema since filmmakers want to reduce the risk of losing their money. This is probably one of the reasons why audience numbers have also reduced in movie theatres because people generally assume that they can watch these films sitting at home as the excitement to watch a movie on a theatre has significantly reduced.
A large public narrative is formed through cinema. For ideas to evolve, cinema needs to evolve and for cinema to evolve, newer ideas and narratives need to come out. Thus, censorship needs to be limited to only extreme cases and should otherwise be restricted to simply certification in order to ensure a fair choice to the audience.
Views expressed are personal.
About the Author
Hiba Ahmad is a student of Literature at Hansraj College, Delhi University, India. She has worked with NGOs such as CRY and is an accomplished debater.