Censorship rules

Published : Feb 12, 2010 00:00 IST

The controversial film The Da Vinci Code could be screened only after a disclaimer was added declaring that the views in it were personal to the writer and not shared by the producers. Here, outside a cinema hall in Chennai where the film was screened, in July 2006.-M. VEDHAN

The controversial film The Da Vinci Code could be screened only after a disclaimer was added declaring that the views in it were personal to the writer and not shared by the producers. Here, outside a cinema hall in Chennai where the film was screened, in July 2006.-M. VEDHAN

THE British rulers of India framed a law that laid down what could be written in newspapers and journals and what could be shown in feature films. They did not have any law for radio broadcasts simply because broadcasting was done by the state. This and other such laws were enforced proactively during the Second World War, ostensibly to counter German propaganda, but they were also useful to control what the British saw as internal disturbances by political groups agitating for freedom, notably the Congress party.

When Independence came, many of the restrictions on the press were removed, but the control on films remained, surprisingly, on the grounds that it was meant to prevent indecency from being shown in films. The other usual concerns that prop up censorship security of the state and good relations with friendly countries were also cited in support of the move. Protests from different quarters notwithstanding, this censorship continues, though, typically, the word censorship has been replaced by certification, an excellent example of the casuistry in which the bureaucracy is so skilled even though their grammar is, often, a little shaky and their language pedantic to the point of being comic.

Recently, a young diplomat from one of the Latin American countries mentioned to me that she had seen, to her delight, a DVD of a film by Almodovar on sale in a local store and had promptly bought it. But it had many missing scenes, she told me sadly. I know. I love the film and have seen it more than six times. Perhaps, they made it from a defective copy. I had to tell her that it was not defective, but it was censored, or, to put it in correct bureaucratese, certified by the Central Board of Film Certification. Being new to India she was taken aback, and said, But this is a democracy, you have the right of free speech here.

Rather shamefacedly I had to tell her that not only was there a censorship of all films, but that I had been administrative head of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry that had passed the law originally and that I had done nothing to alter it. I think I left her more confused than she was, but our conversation led me to consider the whole question afresh. Why do we persist with censorship of films, and what gives the government the right to set itself up as custodian of the morals of society when it comes to films?

The first part of the question is easily handled. The standard answer is the one I myself have given when I was Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting: left to themselves, makers of commercial films will put in sequences that are obscene or indecent or sexually suggestive and so on. These words and phrases are not defined, nor can they be. What, for example, is obscenity? Will there be agreement across the board to what it is, leaving aside some very obvious instances? The English anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer has written a hilarious article on how obscenity could mean different things to different cultures and societies. He argues that it is theoretically possible that the act of putting a car in gear could be seen by some social group as incredibly obscene.

The matter comes up ever so often in Parliament and it generates much heat but, again, members, be they of the Opposition or the treasury benches, have never tried to define in explicit terms what they mean by the term. This is what infuriates film-makers.

But the basic question needs to be asked. Should one censor a film? I used to have one answer when I was working in the government and, on reflection, have the same answer now. The answer is yes, but a qualified yes. Films are censored in many countries, though the methods differ widely. The British Board of Film Certification has been set up by the industry itself and gives ratings such as PG (parental guidance) or indicates the age level considered appropriate. In the United States, there is a similar but much more informal rating of films, and other countries have their own norms and procedures.

The fact is that there is widespread recognition that some kind of certification, or rating, is desirable, given the power the medium has over peoples minds, particularly over young minds. Several years ago, the World Commission on Culture and Development, set up by UNESCO under the presidentship of the former United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, said in its report: All countries and cultures have struggled to define the line where freedom ends and licence begins. Standards of decency, respect for others and self-restraint vary from one country to another, and from one period to another. While all forms of censorship must be avoided, nowhere is freedom unqualified or allowed to operate regardless of the consequences. (From Action Point 6: Media rights and self-regulation. Section: International Agenda, in the report Our Creative Diversity, UNESCO, 1996.)

Perhaps the more irksome part of this issue is the second part of the question, namely, the manner in which the government has arrogated to itself the right to play moral guardian. This could be part of a colonial regime, but seems totally unacceptable in a democracy. The trouble is that in our country the film bodies are so beset with internal squabbles that they simply cannot be trusted to get together to set up such a body on their own. And if they cannot, then who can, if one rules out the state?

Perhaps the state can encourage the selection of persons by the industry itself, but not suggest anyone on its own. This is a possibility and could be looked at, but the process is too fraught with areas where intrigue and manoeuvring would remain, whatever the method followed. That would, again, vitiate the selection process. The government has not been appointed to play the role of custodian of societys morals. But it is doing so because, for the moment, there seems to be no alternative.

What guidelines does one give the board? Some have to be given, everyone will agree. Otherwise certification will become really crude censorship or a general free for all, leading to various groups staging demonstrations that could turn violent. While the majority of our film-makers may be wisely restrained, a small number may be inclined to put in whatever they think will get them good revenues, and that precisely is where the problem begins.

This is the recurring dilemma one has to face when it comes to films. A long meeting on this subject between members of Parliament and film-makers organised when I was in government became so acrimonious that it had to be stopped by the Minister. At the moment there is comparative quiet, but the issue will have to be faced at some time or the other and resolved.

If The Da Vinci Code could be screened despite objections from Christian groups, when a disclaimer was added declaring that the views in the film were personal to the writer and not shared by the producers, there is a possibility that such acceptance can become more general, and that eventually films can be shown without being censored by people who, for the most part, know little about films.

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