Cut and thrust

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Bajrang Dal activists venting their anger on a poster of Shahrukh Khan's film "My Name is Khan" in Ahmedabad in 2010. Censorship is often sought to be enforced by so-called guardians of culture. Photo: PTI

Muslims protesting the screening of "Vishwaroopam" in Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh, in January. Photo: Singam Venkataramana

Censorship is not just about a paternal state trying to regulate an “infantile” public. The men with the scissors have played a central role in the making of Indian film history.

CENTENARY celebrations have a tendency to induce list mania—a condition which manifests itself through the creation of top hundred lists in various permutations and combinations. The celebrations around the 100 years of Indian cinema are no exception, and we have already witnessed newspapers and magazines breathlessly competing to create their lists. But all these lists are marked by a conspicuous absence: the contribution of censors to the making of Indian film history. This is not surprising given that censors would hardly be the persons you would invite first to a celebration of cinema and they are more likely to be seen as the surly party poopers of an otherwise glorious century. And yet, the history of Indian cinema would be incomplete without an acknowledgment of the central role of the men with the scissors.

In a rare moment of humour, which some would deem as slightly perverse, the Central Board of Film Certification, perhaps inspired by the film Cinema Paradiso, organised a workshop earlier this year as part of its contribution to the centenary festivities. It played a 20-minute film of censored scenes, thereby allowing what had been prevented from being seen to become visible. There is, of course, an irony in this gesture, as the deleted scenes are themselves pre-selected by the Censor Board, thereby creating a self-recursive loop where censored scenes are uncensored through acts of censorship. The film makes visible the normally hidden operations of the Censor Board and allows us to see censorship’s “contribution by deletion” to the history of Indian cinema. An ideal gift to Indian cinema on its 100th birthday would probably consist of finally acknowledging cinema and the filmgoer’s maturity and doing away with film censorship altogether, but since this is unlikely to happen in the near future, it may be fruitful instead to think of why it is the case and what are the cultural and technological assumptions that have helped sustain the differential treatment accorded to film compared with other expressive mediums such as literature. After examining the cultural history of film censorship, I will then pose the question of how we can reconstruct film censorship as an object of enquiry beyond moaning the fact of its continuation.

Different rules

Film censorship in India stands on a slightly different plane from other forms of expression by virtue of films being one of the few mediums subject to pre-censorship. “Pre-censorship” refers to the practice wherein a text is refused circulation until it has been cleared by censorial authorities. A film, for instance, can only be publicly exhibited after it has been cleared by the Censor Board. In the case of a book, you do not need any permission to publish it. The historical justification for this differential treatment of cinema comes from a legal understanding of the specificity of the medium of film. A crucial question is whether these assumptions of the power of cinema remain true even a century later. One of the first films to be banned in India was Bhakta Vidur on the grounds that “it is likely to excite dissatisfaction against government and incite people to non-cooperation,”, and if we were to draw a long arc between Bhakta Vidur to the recent calls to ban Vishwaroopam, we cover not just a hundred years of cinematic history but a century of technological time in which we have seen the emergence of a range of media forms from television and video cassette recorders to mobile phones and the Internet.

And yet, the language justifying the regulation of cinema does not seem to have changed too much, with the contemporary discourse on cinema mirroring the concerns in the early 20th century of the impact of cinema.

The colonial concern about cinema in India produced a strange doubling effect where, on the one hand, it was argued that there was something specific to the experience of cinema generally which justified censorship, and at the same time, there was something particular about the reception of cinema in the colonies by the natives. The colonial suspicion of cinema was grounded on the assumption that a naïve audience would not be able to distinguish cinema from reality and hence would mistake all the scandalous content they saw on screen as being emblematic of English character—a clear danger to the might and prestige of the Empire.

The cultural-exceptionalism rhetoric was, of course, backed by a political-economy concern over the rise of American films at the cost of Empire films and an increasing nervousness of the colonial administration about the convergence of a nascent nationalist consciousness with technologies of affective mobilisation. William Mazzarella, in his important study of film censorship ( Censorium), argues that cinema inherited concerns coming out of two earlier public media: print and theatrical performance. Like print, cinema was a medium of mechanical mass reproduction and its provocations could be easily reproduced. And like theatre, it mobilised the performative-mimetic energies of bodily action. Even if it lacked theatre’s liveliness, it replaced it with the possibilities of a mass medium addressed to an anonymous audience but stimulated with its capacity to passionately affect bodily and psychic experiences.

One of the most significant exercises in the colonial period, then, was the setting up of the Indian Cinematograph Committee (ICC) of 1927-28, under the chairmanship of B.T. Rangachariah, a highly respected lawyer from Madras. The brief of the committee was to conduct a systematic study of film culture and censorship in India. It prepared a meticulous set of questions and sent 4,325 copies to people in the film industry, the government, education officials, police officials, health inspectors, members of the censor boards, electricity officials and prominent public personalities, including Mahatma Gandhi, Lala Lajpat Rai and Dadasaheb Phalke. The report remains the best source of information on early cinema, and film historians such as Stephen Hughes and Priya Jaikumar have mined it to reconstruct the history of silent cinema in India.

While Gandhi declined to be interviewed, he sent them a note saying, “Even if I were so minded I would be unfit to answer your questionnaire, as I have never been to the cinema. But even to an outsider, the evil that it has done and is doing is patent. The good, if any at all, remains to be proved.” Gandhi retained a lifelong suspicion of cinema, and in 1938, when a newspaper sought a message from him on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Indian cinema, his secretary sent this reply: “As a rule Gandhi gives messages only on rare occasions—and these are only for causes whose virtue is ever undoubtful. As for the cinema industry he has the least interest in it and one may not expect a word of appreciation from him.”

Interestingly, in 1939, K.A. Abbas, then a young journalist and an aspiring film-maker, made another appeal to Gandhi to change his opinion on the evils of cinema. Abbas would go on to play a very significant role in the history of film censorship when, in 1968, he unsuccessfully challenged the constitutional validity of pre-censorship of films. In his letter to Gandhi, Abbas wrote: “Today I bring for your scrutiny—and approval—a new toy my generation has learned to play with, the CINEMA! You include cinema among evils like gambling, sutta, horse racing, etc.... Now if these statements had come from any other person, it was not necessary to be worried about them.... But your case is different. In view of the great position you hold in this country, and I may say in the world, even the slightest expression of your opinion carries much weight with millions of people. And one of the world’s most useful inventions would be allowed to be discarded or, what is worse, left alone to be abused by unscrupulous people. You are a great soul, Bapu. In your heart there is no room for prejudice. Give this little toy of ours, the cinema, which is not so useless as it looks, a little of your attention and bless it with a smile of toleration.”

Abbas’ appeal did not change Gandhi’s mind, and he retained a lifelong suspicion of cinema. Unlike the Mahatma, however, Lala Lajpat Rai was a lot more open to the nascent entertainment form and his answer to the question of whether the Indian youth were more susceptible to the negative influences of cinema is worth reproducing:

I do not agree with that view at all, and I will give you my reasons too. First of all, the influence of the cinema is no more and no greater than the influence of the novel or the drama. The college youths read a lot of novels, both American and European, and it is from their subjects of these novels, that most films are produced and I have no apprehension that the films are likely to be more harmful than the reading of novels and dramas. The fact is that the western civilization is spreading across the world. It has its good effects and its bad effects, and we cannot have the one without the other. I am sufficiently confident that our people will be able to resist the evil influences of the cinema on account of the general atmosphere of sexual morality that prevails in this country. Of course there will be a few individual people who may go astray here and there, but I don’t want to make that the basis of action….. I don’t want the youth of this country to be brought up in a nursery. They should know all these things, because they will be better able to resist those things when they go out. They should see all those things here and they will be able to understand all the points of modern life.

Two colonial legacies

It would be useful for us, as we move towards the second century of Indian cinema, to recall Rai’s confident assertion of a future citizenry governed by their own moral judgment rather than being dependent on a paternal pedantic law that determines what is harmful to them. Two of the lasting colonial legacies that film censorship in the post-colonial context inherited were is the assumption that cinema affects people differently depending on their class, gender and education (so censorship is never for us but for the abstract anonymous illiterate masses) and the self-fulfilling prophecy of the excitable Indian. The cultural exceptionalism of film censorship constructs a theory of spectatorship, where the Indian audience is perpetually on a short fuse as they are more excitable and prone to reacting with an irrational passion to images, which, in turn, justifies strong paternal protection from images. Critics of film censorship have rightfully pointed out the inherent contradictions, the inherent class bias and the often unjustified fear of crowds that underlie censorship. The liberal critique of censorship sees it as a repressive model with the complaint that censors act as aesthetic bowdlerisers who destroy the aesthetic integrity of a film. And while this is mostly true, it does not provide us with a complete picture of the complex relationship between censorship and cinema, and it is time to admit that beyond repeating the obvious there is little to add to our study of film censorship from within the liberal tradition until the law is reformed.

In recent years, scholars have started moving away from a purely repressive hypothesis towards providing a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between censorship, sovereignty and cultural regulation. Annette Kuhn, whose work inspired the first move away from a purely repressive model, argues that censorship needs to be understood as a complex interweaving of diverse social phenomena, ranging from spatial anxieties around film exhibition to moral panic around sexuality and social hygiene. Following the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, she suggests that it would be more useful to see censorship as a productive discourse that creates a set of truth claims about sexuality, taste, morality, and so on, and that we need to read censorship symptomatically as a terrain in which these contestations play out.

More recently, the Chicago-based anthropologist William Mazzarella has argued that we need to locate film censorship within the larger challenge that all states face, of the management of public affect in the era of mass media, and for him sovereign power often balances uncomfortably between “sensuous incitement and symbolic order”. He locates the politics of film censorship beyond state regulation and instead looks at diverse sites (Bal Thackeray’s approval of Bombay, the cultural wars over lesbian themes in Fire, the battle over sexual morality in the “Choli Ke Peeche” controversy) to argue that film censorship is only intelligible within the larger dynamics of contested claims over sovereignty in India. For Mazzarella, as sovereignty moves from a king and to the people, the performative and affective intensity previously focussed on the image and person of the ruler is transferred to “transient, mobile energies of the modern crowds that become the bearers and the addressees of the new mass publicity”. This is evidenced in the fact that a number of censorship debates, especially in the south Indian film industry, are less about the role of the Censor Board than about fan clubs, political parties and “social welfare” organisations. The controversy surrounding Chiranjeevi’s film Alluda Majaka is a censorship tale but one that does not limit the actors to the repressive state and the defiant artist but weaves in a myriad of political claims of publicity and provocations.

Fruits of censorship

Voltaire once remarked: “Ice cream is exquisite—what a pity it isn’t illegal.” And as much as we complain about film censorship and see it as a symptom of a paternal state hell-bent on sustaining the myth of an infantile public sphere, every once in a while, and a centenary certainly is not a bad occasion, we should just enjoy our symptom. Thus, while repressive theories of cinema can explain how cinema produces censorship, we also need productive theories to understand how censorship in turn produces cinema, and if we are to tell a story of censorship worthy of the complexities of Indian cinema, it is only appropriate then for me to correct the absence of censorship in the lists of contributors to the history of Indian cinema by ending with my top five list.

These are, for me, the five cinematic effects peculiar to Indian cinema produced by censorship:

1. The Metaphorical Kiss: Until Mallika Sherawat authoritatively smashed the kissing ceiling, kisses in post-Independence Indian cinema were furtive and few. An internal moral code premised on the negation of public displays of affection translated into an unwritten ban on kissing in cinema. But if censorship is the mother of metaphor, film-makers invented innovative forms (birds kissing, flowers meeting) to show you everything but the kiss, and even if you did not see the kiss, as Madhava Prasad suggests, what you do see is censorship bare and naked.

2. The Perpetually Late Police: The original ending of Sholay had the Thakur killing Gabbar Singh with his feet, but since this was during the Emergency and it was dangerous to show a former police inspector turning to vigilante justice, the censors demanded a change in the ending, thereby creating one of the most inefficient and ironic tropes—the sight of the police arriving after all the action to urge the vigilante not to take the law into his own hands.

3. The Obscene Surplus as Law: When a film is banned, its career as an image comes to a sudden standstill, but it often survives as the obscene surplus in the form of the legal text that replaces the missing image. Legal judgments that sustain the banning of films, especially on grounds of obscenity, take great delight in describing the obscene content in graphic detail, thereby assuring the survival of the film as obscene text. The film is effectively replaced by a lascivious judgment.

4. The Schizophrenic Judge as Film Critic: In a decision which lays down the precise task of a judge in interpreting a film, the court says: In judging the question of obscenity, the judge, in the first place, should try to place himself in the position of the author of the film. From the viewpoint of the author of the film, the judge should try to understand what it is that the author seeks to convey and whether what the author conveys has any literary and artistic value. The judge should thereafter place himself in the position of a viewer and should try to appreciate what kind of possible influence or impact the film is likely to cause on the minds of viewers. Thereafter, the judge should apply his judicial mind dispassionately to decide whether the film in question can be said to be obscene.

This magical ability to switch between subject positions provides us with an opportunity to look at affect as the space that mediates the relationship of law to media. Rather than seeing the schizoid nature of legal interpretation as something that needs to be corrected or remedied, it is more interesting to understand how this schizoid nature translates and converts specific affects into the language of the law.

5. The Political Theatre of Hurt Sentiments: And finally, it seems that there is no institution that celebrates the power of cinema and its ability to move us as much as film censorship. Taking its cue from the melodramatic form of Indian cinema, the political theatre of hurt sentiments in India competes with it to demonstrate the power of cinema to hurt religious sentiments, resulting in demonstrations of outrage worthy of a melodramatic film in itself. From Da Vinci Code to Singh is King and My Name is Khan, cinema has indeed emerged as the secular institution par excellence in its ability to offend religious communities.

A hundred years of film censorship has conclusively shown us that if you want to learn about the dramaturgy of the law, it is fruitful to go to cinema, but if you want to learn about the dramaturgy of cinema, there is no better place to go than the law.

Lawrence Liang is a lawyer and film scholar at the Alternative Law Forum. He is currently completing a book on law, justice and cinema in India.

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