Approximately 30 years before Laal Singh Chaddha was subject to an online boycott campaign, another film character—also ironically played by Aamir Khan—had asserted the absolute right of the public to reject films. Munna, the charming Tapori in Ram Gopal Verma’s Rangeela, combined social vulnerability with a fragile bravado that endeared him to the Indian movie audience, and in a sequence in the film, Munna takes his lady-love Milli to watch a film. After a fracas in the theatre, Munna and Milli return home, arguing all the way about his boorish behaviour in the hall. Milli reacts sharply to Munna’s criticism of the film and particularly of its hero, and asks Munna what authority he has to judge the film, to which he defiantly replies: “We are the public, we can say anything to anyone, and if we don’t get our money’s worth, we can finish off anybody.”
This sequence seems ironically prescient today, with movie audiences asserting their right to boycott films even before they are released. Before we go into an analysis of what is different about the kind of spectatorial assertion made by Munna in comparison to the boycott campaigns we are witnessing, it is worth scrutinising the very idea of the rights of a spectator. These are not constitutional rights that are legally bestowed. Instead, they are earned through labours of love and passionate investment in cinema.
The relationship between a film audience and a filmic text or its star is underwritten by an informal narrative contract, with the audience retaining its ultimate sovereign prerogative—of rejecting a film. While this manifests itself most acutely in the form of box-office failures, in a country marked by an extremely complex economy of filmic passion, it can also express itself in more unpredictable ways with fans claiming ownership over stars and often over the narrative. Fan clubs of South Indian stars like Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi, for instance, see themselves as guardians of the star’s image, and any slur against them provokes angry reactions, sometimes even against the stars themselves. In his work on Chiranjeevi fan clubs, the film scholar S.V. Srinivas narrates an episode in which fans, aggrieved by a perceived insult to the star by the heroine during a song sequence in Gharana Mogudu, demanded the withdrawal of the song.
Actors have had to appeal to their fans not to boycott their films or engage in violence after the latter have been angered by unfavourable portrayals of their favourite star. In an interview with Srinivas, Chiranjeevi says: “Even the man who pays three or four rupees thinks he owns the star and has a right over him.” This language of ownership and rights alerts us to the thorny fusion of emotion and legality that has always subsisted in Indian popular cinema.
Out of context
At one level it could be argued that there is something intrinsically democratic about the right of an audience to reject a film. By that account it might seem that the recent trend of audiences calling for the boycott of films is an extension of this democratic right. But before we hastily affirm the mechanism of boycott for its democratic potential, it is important to distinguish between the rejection of the film after its release and an anticipatory boycott of the film before it is even viewed. In the former, the quarrel with the film is a disagreement that arises out of a love for cinema, and as with lovers’ quarrels, the disagreement can be productive when there is a transactional equality between the two parties.
This assertion of the rights of the audience rebukes the myth that films are solely authored by movie stars and directors as viewers claim equal authorship in creating the meaning of a film. But there is a big difference between registering your disapproval of a film on passionate, aesthetic, narrative, or even political grounds and demanding the boycott of a film because you disagree with the opinions of those involved in its making.
In the case of Laal Singh Chaddha, the demand for boycott came in response to a 2015 interview in which Aamir Khan, referencing a private conversation with his ex-wife Kiran Rao about her anxieties over rising intolerance in the country, had dismissed a speculative discussion about whether it was time to leave India. Khan went on to say in the interview that he had never ever considered the possibility, that he was born in India and intends to die in India.
It was bad enough at the time of the interview that his statement was taken out of context and twisted to suggest that he had expressed a desire to leave India. What is far worse is the disingenuous manner in which this interview was invoked as the grounds for boycotting Laal Singh Chaddha. Another film, Raksha Bandhan, which was released on the same day as Khan’s film, suffered a similar fate, with people asking for its boycott because of previous Twitter posts by Kanika Dhillon, the film’s writer.
The call to boycott films because of the opinions of people involved with them is decidedly anti-cinema in nature. While every viewer has the liberty not to see a film, the demand for a collective boycott transforms the spectator into a censor. Film censorship occupies a rather distinct position in Indian law, as cinema is one of the very few expressive forms in which pre-censorship is justified. In the case of a work of literature, you do not need anyone’s permission to circulate the work, although after publication, legal action might be taken against it. In the case of films however, no movie in India can be screened without the prior approval of the censor board (inaccurately renamed the Central Board of Film Certification). Film censorship is therefore an anticipatory act of prohibition that can determine whether a film is released at all.
Like censorship, calls for boycott before a film’s release are based on the exercise of a preventive power, with one crucial difference. Film censorship, however capricious, still works within a paradigm of legality and constitutionalism, and filmmakers have the opportunity to appeal either to administrative bodies such as Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, or eventually to the High Court or Supreme Court. Much as one abhors the idea of censorship, it still operates within a constitutional design that lays constraints on the arbitrary exercise of power by the state machinery over what may or may not be seen.
Social boycotts mimic the power of the state to suppress films, but with no concomitant legal limit set on either its malice or its arbitrariness. Anticipatory boycotts of films can therefore be characterised as censorship by other means. But if they do operate by other means, would the term censorship be adequate, or should we qualify the term to more accurately describe these “other means”? I propose a set of three related terms: meta-censorship, para-censorship and auto-censorship as a way of understanding the extra-constitutional history of film censorship, and propose that we see these three forms not as distinct modes of preventing films from being viewed but as injunctive forms that exist on a continuum.
The history of film exhibition in India is replete with examples of extra-constitutional individuals and bodies who have played an active role in censoring films. We can term these as instances of meta-censorship. One famous example is the career of Amrit Nahata’s satirical film Kissa Kursi Ka (1975). Notwithstanding the fact that Nahata was a Congress politician, the film was seen as a thinly veiled critique of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi’s penchant for autocratic diktats. Denied certification, the director filed a petition in May 1975, asking the Supreme Court to grant a writ of mandamus ordering the authorities to grant the film a ‘U’ certificate and allowing it to be released. By June, Emergency had been declared in India and within two weeks the government denied a certificate to the film.
It followed this with a declaration that the film was undesirable and had to be forfeited: Nahata was compelled by the then Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Vasant Sathe, to hand over all the prints, negatives, even the publicity material of the film. Meanwhile the Supreme Court stepped in to pass an interim order asking the government to keep all the material in safekeeping pending the disposal of the writ petition. The film then disappeared into a Kafkaesque labyrinth and it is rumoured that the master print of the film, obtained from the censor board office, was brought to the Maruti factory in Gurgaon and burnt. After Emergency, the Shah Commission found Sanjay Gandhi and V.C. Shukla guilty of burning the negatives, and a district court judge found the two culpable of concealing stolen property and destroying evidence.
Another famous instance of meta-censorship involves objections by both the Shiv Sena and Muslim organisations to Mani Ratnam’s film Bombay (1995), which depicted the riots in Bombay following the demolition of Babri masjid. The Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray had allegedly allowed public screening of the film only after a private screening at his Bandra home, Matoshree, where the filmmakers allegedly agreed to cut out a scene in which a character based on Thackeray is depicted as expressing remorse at the riots. These and numerous other instances of meta-censorship alert us to the existence of extra-constitutional actors who anticipate, usurp and exceed the role of film censors by finishing off films through extrajudicial encounters.
Virality as a weapon
If meta-censorship exists over and above film practice, the second mutation of censorship in the form of boycotts is what can be termed as para-censorship. While boycotts aim to prevent the release of films or foil their success at the box office, they are also parasitic on the popularity of films and movie stars. Para-censorship exercises its power from the primary currency of networked communication—virality. The engine of social media is fuelled by viral news, and without things going viral, appeals for boycotts would fall flat and be consigned to the dustbin of yesterday’s news. Meta-censorship banks on being the news that stays new precisely because it shares with cinema an understanding of the fact that virality is the only guarantee of relevance in an economy marked by information overload and attention deficit. But by weaponising virality, it transforms publicity and attention into cinema’s greatest enemy.
“Extra-constitutional forms of censorship have no legal constraint because emotion is an unpredictable mass of affect, which can be called to work overtime even after all the official censors have called it a day.”
If the exercise of the right to reject a film is the prerogative that defines the sovereignty of the audience, para-censorship is a cinematic sovereignty gone rogue. It borrows its moral authority from the worst cinematic plot of the triumph of the hero over the villain; it replaces an idea of freedom as discernment with an idea of freedom as excommunication; it supplants the power to censor cinema with the power to cancel it altogether. The final aim of meta-censorship is to replace the power of cinema with a power over cinema.
Play it safe
We witnessed the most striking example of meta-censorship in the manner in which the unfortunate death by suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput was systematically weaponised to concoct a conspiracy theory of nepotism and murder that accused many major players in the industry of being complicit with the young actor’s death. Unlike state censorship, meta-censorship operationalises itself not through a logic of suppression but through a logic of box office failure, which can be more diabolic than the scissors of a censor. Drunk on its own punitive power, para-censorship is impervious to the injustice of subsuming the collective labour of making a film into the penal consequences of the beliefs and statements of individuals associated with the film.
Free speech theory and key judgments on free speech in India have provided us with a wide vocabulary to identify dangers that arise from the actions of extra-constitutional authorities and an intolerant public. These include phrases such as “chilling effects” and “heckler’s veto”—both accurately describing the metamorphosis of censorship that occurs as a natural consequence of the first two mutations that we have identified, and we can call this final form “auto-censorship”.
The eventual consequence of the practices of meta-censorship and para-censorship is a browbeaten industry that plays it safe by embracing self-censorship as a survival tactic. This could have a potentially debilitating effect on film narratives, where in addition to the boundaries proscribed by a draconian cinematograph act, filmmakers will additionally have to anticipate all possible forms of hurt sentiments and avoid working with potentially controversial actors or technicians who have expressed their opinions on political issues. But regardless of how much a filmmaker attempts to anticipate and avoid the risks arising out of meta-censorship and para-censorship, it will eventually be a zero-sum game, because of the infinitely open-ended nature of what constitutes offence-giving under this transformed regime of censorship.
With all its limitations, traditional film censorship still works within a set of defined limits, identified either through the reasonable restrictions set out in Article 19(2) of the Constitution, the regulatory standards established under the cinematograph rules or through other content-regulating laws. Extra-constitutional forms of censorship have no such legal constraint because emotion is a lumpy, inchoate and unpredictable mass of affect, which can be called to work overtime even after all the official censors have called it a day.
Resembling the proverbial black cat in a dark room, auto-censorship will have to look for the outer edges of acceptable content even though they do not exist. It is a well-known secret within the industry that filmmakers act in anticipation of the censuring gaze of potential censors by either deleting material, or in some ingenuous cases, incorporating additional scenes (so that the film affords some minimum quantity of cuts). Now the only way for them to mitigate the social risks of a film is to inhabit the mind of a potential heckler while making the film. This would perhaps qualify as one of the scariest prospects for a creative artist, rivalling the most frightening scenes from any horror movie.
In the past few years, there have been instances of filmmakers drastically cutting down scenes or bowdlerizing their narratives in response to extraneous threats. Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil featured the Pakistani actor Fawad Khan at a time when India-Pakistan relations were on edge following the 2016 Uri attack. Threats by numerous groups including the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena forced the director to chop down many scenes involving Khan and to change the setting of the film from Lahore to Lucknow. These threats eventually compelled Johar to release a video of abject apology—which commentators have compared to hostage videos—affirming his nationalist credentials before the film was allowed to be released. While the Constitution allows you to negotiate with the state, it has little to say to abductors.
The coming together of these three modes of censorship poses immense challenges to how we think of the relationship between cinema, democracy and law. Cinema occupies a unique place in the history of Indian democracy as a political and cultural form that mobilises ideas of publicness and enables forms of participation: the rich scholarship on the history of cinema as a public institution testifies to this. One would have assumed that the democratisation of technologies that facilitate people to access cinema and voice their opinions would expand democratic spaces, but in the era of #BoycottBollywood we are at a paradoxical juncture where cinema is susceptible to more democratic, but also more illiberal, modes of communication.
From the release of films to the holidays of stars, cinema is now more available to the public, but often as news rather than as cinema itself. When the film industry harnessed the power of social media publicity and virality as crucial modes of promotion, it perhaps did not anticipate the power of negative labour to turn the democratic possibility of cinema against itself.
If Munna’s statement in Rangeela about the right of the public to reject films was a celebration of the democratic potential of cinema, in the times of para-, meta- and auto-censorship, the assertion “We are the public, we can say anything to anyone, and we can finish off anybody” sounds like a chilling threat.
Lawrence Liang is a professor at SLGC, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University Delhi. He works on the intersection of law, culture and technology.
- It is important to distinguish between the rejection of the film after its release and an anticipatory boycott of the film before it is even viewed
- There were calls to boycott films like Laal Singh Chaddha or Raksha Bandhan before their release on the basis of comments made by people involved with the films
- The call to boycott films because of the opinions of people involved with them is anti-cinema
- Social boycotts mimic the power of the state to suppress films, but with no concomitant legal limit
- The extra-constitutional history of film censorship can be understood through three related terms: meta-censorship, para-censorship and auto-censorship
- The coming together of these three modes of censorship challenges how we think of the relationship between cinema, democracy and law