The saga of visual entertainment for the Indian masses started with ‘Alam Ara’, and over the years has diversified into the realm of movies and television shows, with the latest entrant being web series.
Since the 1990s, the CBFC or the Censor board (as it is infamously known) has been in news for either heavily censoring movies which don’t come under its moral compass or denying them certification altogether. This trend started with Shekar Kapur’s ‘Bandit Queen’ and the most recent victim has been Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Padmaavat’. But why has there been a surge in censoring and banning in the past two decades? It seems that a larger number of mainstream directors have started picking up bold and sensitive topics since the 1990s. The small budget directors were doing that in the pre-1990s as well though. Most of the mainstream movies in pre-1990s were censored for their political content or violence rather than being indecent for the general public. ‘Kissa Kursi Ka’, ‘Garam Hava’ and ‘Aandhi’ are some notable examples. But of course, there were exceptions like ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’ and ‘Prem Rog’. There were only exceptions because the Indian film industry was unsure of the public reception and only a few producers and directors would bank on a bold and sensitive script. They could very well gauge the public reception in ‘Aandhi’ or ‘Zanjeer’ which were against the state and not the society.
Most of the movies today are censored for potential repercussions for the society and from the society. Shekhar Kapur’s ‘Bandit Queen’ and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Padmaavat’ are both examples of this, where one glorifies the life of a female bandit and doesn’t shy from showing a gang rape scene, the other picks up a historically sensitive topic, to say the least. Recent years have also seen movies like ‘Udta Punjab’ and ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ receive a lot of flak from CBFC. The major issue with them was that they were trying to portray the reality of society through the medium of cinema.
"Visual mass media should help society evolve and progress, not the other way around. What is actually happening is that society is stopping the visual mass media from progressing and evolving. The society is content with cheap masala movies but it is apparently not ready for important topics like female desires and ostracism."
Visual mass media should help society evolve and progress, not the other way around. What is actually happening is that society is stopping the visual mass media from progressing and evolving. The society is content with cheap masala movies but it is apparently not ready for important topics like female desires and ostracism. This is the scenario while individuals are entitled to freedom of expression. Talking of freedom of expression, the freedom of cinema also comes under the purview of article 19(1) of the Indian constitution. Though article 19(2) puts reasonable restrictions on the right to express oneself, why are these restrictions different for the two mediums? Press has more freedom, while access to cinema is restricted by the authority of CBFC. The alleged difference between the influence of visual media and print media is not as significant as the difference between restraints on their freedom of expression. Why does an authority need to be set up which takes such ‘pro-active’ measures to shield the public from immoral and indecent work of fiction? The CBFC has taken a very paternalistic view of film certification and is not letting the people of the country choose for themselves. In the age of publicized promotions, an individual can choose if s/he wants to watch a movie or not; there are newspapers, movie trailers, and movie promotions to influence his/her decision.
"The apex court in its judgment had held that it was the responsibility of the state to preserve and protect the freedom of expression as it is a liberty guaranteed against the state. It also declared that the state had no right to plead its incapacity to deal with its antagonistic audience issues."
Secondly, even if an individual watches a movie unaware of the subject and hypothetically the film displays a controversial opinion, say, the glorification of mercy killing, an independent mind should be allowed to form its opinions--as would happen in a true democracy. I am not saying that CBFC shouldn’t put reasonable restrictions as it put in the case of ‘A Tale Of Four Cities’. But in a scenario where just because the society might not be ready for a progressive idea, like in case of the Tamil movie, ‘Ore Oru Gramathile’ on caste-based reservation, the movie cannot be censored. This was also established in the Supreme court’s landmark judgment, Rangarajan v P Jagjivan Ram in the year 1989. The apex court in its judgment had held that it was the responsibility of the state to preserve and protect the freedom of expression as it is a liberty guaranteed against the state. It also declared that the state had no right to plead its incapacity to deal with its antagonistic audience issues. But even after more than two decades of passing the judgment, we had such instances in case of Aarakshan (2011) and recently in case of Padmaavat (2018). It is debatable if the decision was taken due to just ‘antagonistic audience’ or it was clubbed with respective government’s ideological beliefs.
However, what is indisputable is that this debate should have at least entered the public domain and consequently public consciousness. Over the years, opposition to a movie has been seen as a result of public anger over a sensitive issue, be it Jodhaa Akbar (2008), PK (2014) or the recent Padmaavat controversy. Seldom does the discussion on role of political parties occupy a large space in the discourse on film censorship. What is surprising is that movies like ‘Fanaa’, ‘Aandhi’ and ‘Kissa Kursi Ka’ which were selectively or completely banned for political reasons couldn’t even stir a debate on politicisation of movies. In ‘Padmaavat’ controversy, the state could have very well detained the leaders who had threatened the director and actors publicly but decided to ignore the issue completely. In the case of ‘Udtaa Punjab’, members associated with the then ruling party in Punjab were damaging theatres and public property because it could affect the electoral prospects of their party, and surprisingly it was received as something normal and expected. In a country in which movies are a religion, it is sad that their unfair treatment is a frequent and normal affair.
Web shows have been able to stay away from major controversies until now, at least. Some of the web shows also have a fresh outlook and progressive content.
What is also interesting is that the state has not established any authority to look after the content on web shows as of now and hence it has become the favourite medium of the youth. It has some vulgar, misogynistic and defaming content which should be reasonably restricted. But the biggest disadvantage for the directors of such shows is the limited budget as there are limited revenue options and hence limited resources for content development and outreach. Of course, we are not talking about big producers like Amazon, Netflix, and YRF which have started entering the space. Anyway, I will not be surprised if tomorrow the state finds a way to extend the censorship laws applicable to Television shows onto web series as well. Indian television has been self-censoring itself because there are big penalties and damages involved if the authorities have an issue with their content post-telecast (Cinematography act, 1952). This is one of the most pragmatic ways available to the state to censor content on the web as well.
The issue of film censorship is today at the margins of discourse on cinema, and need of the hour is it to take the center stage as visual media is not just for entertainment but has also helped in the progress and development of the society. Visual media should continue to impact the important issues concerning the society.
About the Author
Ayush Singhal is a poet, a social worker, a debater and a student of Public Policy. He holds an undergraduate degree in Political science from Kirorimal college, Delhi University. He has worked with Public health foundation of India, Pratham, Centre for Indian political research and analysis among others. He has interests in Indian Political History, Policy implementation and development, Education and Urbanisation.