Tuesday, September 27, 2011


For previous installments, please visit the index.


“Just like people have the freedom of expression there are also rules to be followed in a civilised society.”

Anupam Kher, Actor and Chairman of Central Board of Film Certification, 2003-2004

At the beginning of every Bollywood film is a certificate (1) from the Central Board of Film Certification (aka the Censor Board) because every film must get screened before it can be publicly exhibited. Unlike the rating processes in places like the United States, India’s Censor Board is very much in the public eye. Filmmakers drag their fights with the Censor Board over content into the media; interest groups lobby the Censor Board for changes to films they think are (or will be) offensive; and high profile actors are often tapped to act as the Chairperson, conveying the official sentiments of the Censor Board to the public. Films can and will be delayed at last minute if the Censor Board doesn’t pass them in time. (2) Understanding the Censor Board is integral to understanding Bollywood film culture. The issues it raises are complex and tied to cultural ideals of art, commerce, and the role of government in both of these things but, too often, these issues are all dismissed with the blanket statement that “censorship is bad” and the unspoken assumption that places like Hollywood do things the correct way, with freedom of speech for everybody. Life is more complex than “censorship is bad; free speech is good” and while I’m certainly not advocating for censorship, (3) I hope you can set aside preconceived notions while joining me on this exploration of how the Censor Board functions.

Film censorship in India during the pre-Independence era was administered by the British and was initially targeted at Western films. Naturally, this meant that films from places like the Soviet Union and the United States were censored for content considered to be dangerous because it could inspire feelings of freedom, nationalism, and socialism - not exactly the feelings that the British wanted to encourage from the Indian population. But even beyond keeping dangerous political idea away from the native population, the British also wanted to promote a positive view of the civilized West and therefore were careful to snip out scenes containing “immoral” content, such as displays of physical affection. These restrictions stayed in place through Independence.

Regional Censor Boards were put into place - under the guidance of local police commissioners - in 1920 and as the many Indian film industries grew and matured, the Censor Boards were there to make sure that filmmakers always stayed on message, at least officially. Coded messages of freedom, nationalism, and (especially) socialism ran strong in these early films, if one knew what to look for. Family social films explored boundaries of caste and class; and it has been argued that early Indian film star Fearless Nadia, a blond buxom Australian, was an outlet for complicated feelings about Westernized modernity. As J.H.B. Wadia, who produced Fearless Nadia’s most famous filmMiss Frontier Mail said: “My much derided stunt films contained more progressive ideas in them than most of the so-called social films which have been successful mainly because of their reactionary ideology.” (4)

Independent India kept the mechanism of the Censor Board in place when the British left but changed the guidelines on how and why material was censored. The new leaders felt that viewers still needed to be shielded from “immoral” content but not to make the West appear civilized. The restrictions were kept to prevent Indian values from being corrupted by the decadent West - a theme played out in film after film through the late 1970s, as outsider vamps (such as French-Burmese Helen) tried and failed to seduce good Indian boys. The theme even echoes today with films like Aloo Chaat (2009), in which the hero hires a Western girl to play his loose-moraled girlfriend in order to horrify his parents into letting me marry the girl he really likes. Not just sex but “immoral” behavior such as swearing, drinking, and most recently, smoking have come under the watchful eye of the Censor Board.

With political messages, the Censor Board was now on the lookout for messages that would undermine not just the ruling party but messages that could fracture fragile national sentiment and potentially inflame communal violence. Again, these restrictions remain in place even today, though the ideologies and messages that would earn the Censor Board’s snip have varied with the times. Famously, the Censor Board demanded the ending to the 1975 film Sholay be changed (5) because it felt the vigilante violence meted out by the police officer protagonist set a bad example but the 2004 film Khakee passed although it contained vigilante violence by police. (6) To this day, common wisdom holds that films featuring strong anti-Pakistan sentiments are more likely to get a pass from the Censor Board than those that treat India’s neighbor with more sympathy. And remarks about different religious, ethnic, gender-based, professional, or other “communities” are still regularly scrubbed from films, if the community in question finds it offensive - whether or not it was intended as an insult.

In the precedent setting 1970 case Abbas v. Union of India, producer/director/filmwriter K.A. Abbas (who worked on some classic Bollywood films like Bobby and Mera Naam Joker) challenged the constitutionality of the Censor Board when they demanded that he cut out scenes of a red light district from his documentary A Tale of Four Cities. The Supreme Court threw Abbas’s own words back at him in their opinion upholding the Censor Board:

"Freedom of expression cannot and should not, be interpreted as a licence for the cinemagnates to make money by pandering to, and thereby propagating, shoddy and vulgar taste." - K.A. Abbas

The basic ideology behind the Censor Board is this: films have the power to influence people. If they didn’t, there would be no point in screening them before they were shown to the public. The Censor Board is there to act as the filter for civilized society, scrubbing out anything that could influence an audience into having undesirable thoughts and performing undesirable behaviors.

It’s worth briefly going into how film censorship works in the United States just to give readers a little more context. The United States does not have a government-sponsored censor board. This doesn’t mean, however, that the United States allows complete freedom of expression for all of its filmmakers. The process of censorship has been privatized and films must go through the Ratings Board of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) before they can be shown to the general public. (7) While this isn’t censorship in the strictest definition, it is censorship in practice, since there is a strong stigma against unrated films and films that receive the NC-17 rating. The major film studios all adhere to the MPAA Ratings Board regulations because the difference between a PG-13 and an R or an R and an NC-17 can mean millions of dollars in lost income for the studio.

In the excellent documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, filmmaker Kirby Dick speaks with some of America’s more controversial filmmakers and asks them about their battles with the Ratings Board. The topics they bring up are somewhat in line with those that India’s Censor Board, but focus almost exclusively on “immoral” content. (8) Filmmakers are regularly asked to cut swearing, smoking, drinking, drug use, and depictions of sexual behavior (especially non-heteronormative sexual behavior). An example of this heteronormative bias is the MPAA Ratings Board demanding Jamie Babbitt cut a female masturbation scene from her film But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) when a much more graphic male masturbation scene was allowed in American Pie (1999).

Unlike the India’s Censor Board, the MPAA Ratings Board works mostly in secret. There is no powerful figurehead who explains decisions to the public. Public interests groups almost never lobby the MPAA Ratings Board directly when they feel they have been offended. When a Hindu group in America was upset over the depiction of Hinduism in 2008 film The Love Guru, the interest group lobbied production company Paramount, not the Ratings Board and the story was treated by the press as a quaint human interest story. In India, when the Dalit community was worried that 2011 film Aarakshan was going to treat their community disrespectfully, they lobbied the Censor Board, not the studio that produced the film and although the matter was not handled to the Dalit community’s satisfaction, the request was taken much more seriously than in the Love Guru example.

While the Love Guru example may seem silly to American readers, imagine the effect on minority groups if they suddenly had the power to control how their images were viewed in popular culture, if Native American groups were able to veto racist team logos or if African American groups were able to veto yet another scary black man as the villain. In India, this means that a community of people, like the Dalits or the barbers who may not have much sway elsewhere in society can make their voices heard. In this way, the censoring process is very democratic. The censoring process also varies from region to region and from censor to censor. What may pass a in metropolitan Mumbai for the global Hindi language market, may fail in a more provincial town like Bangalore in a film meant for Karnataka only. One censor may disapprove of English swears, thinking they are disrespectful to those who don’t speak English, while another may let them slide, thinking that most audiences won’t understand them.

There is no easy answer to the Censor Board problem. The fact remains that while filmmakers would like complete artistic freedom, the viewing public wants to be protected from things that it finds objectionable - whether that is sexual content, swearing, or political disloyalty - and filmmakers are not creating their work in a vacuum. Some decisions of the Censor Board will be applauded and others will be bitterly fought. They will favor artists they prefer and be more harsh on those they dislike. They will drag their feet on vetting certain films or demand unreasonable changes. They will hold films up indefinately. None of it is fair, but then democracy isn’t fair.

In anticipation of angry knee-jerk comments let me state: I do sympathize strongly with those filmmakers who fight the Censor Board tooth and nail to release their artistic vision and I hope you do, too. The purpose of this piece was not a justification of the Censor Board but merely to explore the goals, ideals, and outcomes of an important part of Indian filmmaking, a part that Westerners all too often dismiss with a shout of “censorship is bad,” forgetting that we ourselves do it to. (9) At least in India, everybody knows it’s happening and everybody has a say.

(1) There are three general classes of film - U, U/A, and A, roughly corresponding to the American MPAA ratings G, PG-13, and R, respectively. “U” films are deemed appropriate for “universal” audiences and ensure the largest number of people will see the film. “U/A” films are considered appropriate for everybody above 12 years old. “A” films are meant for adults only.

(2) Something that recently happened to the film Mausam. It was supposed to release on 9/16/11 but the Censor Board didn’t clear it in time, forcing the filmmakers to push the release date back to 9/23/11 just days before the initial release date.

(3) I am a librarian, after all!

(4) Quote pulled from this article, which is worth a read! http://westminsterresearch.wmin.ac.uk/4710/1/Thomas_2007_final.pdf

(5) See more changes demanded here: http://bkpc.blogspot.com/2011/01/sholay-special-edition-dvd-of-alternate.html

(6) In fact, the biggest controversy around Khakee was that it was going to conflict with the release of Shahrukh Khan starrer Kal Ho Naa Ho.

(7) And I’m not going to even touch the United States censoring of television, which IS done by a government body - the Federal Communications Commission.

(8) While doing research for this piece I began to wonder if the overriding difference between the MPAA Ratings Board and the Censor Board is that the MPAA Ratings Board is getting rid of things it thinks should never be done, while the Censor Board is getting rid of things it thinks shouldn’t be seen in public. After all, Indian audiences know what the two flowers nodding at each other symbolized, so technically those kisses were part of the film even if not visually depicted. It was the visual depiction, not the act itself that was discouraged.

(9) How many utterances of the word ‘fuck’ did you hear in the last PG-13 film you watched?


Amaluu said...

Very interesting and I admire how much time you must have put into that research! One question though ... how did Raj Kapoor consistently get away with SO MUCH with the censor board??? Just watch the song 'Tujhe Bulaayen/Aaja Re' from Ram Teri Ganga Maili to see what I mean!! :-)

Moimeme said...

An excellent summary, FG, and kudos for all the research you did!

I hope you won't mind a minor correction, though. Mausam wasn't held up by the Censor Board - they were ready to give the certificate, but the film needed a clearance from the Indian Air Force, and the Censor Board first felt that they couldn't give the censor certificate without that clearance. After about a week, though, they went ahead and gave the censor certificate, but the film still had to wait for the clearance from the Air Force.

On the bigger theme, I'm glad you think the Indian Censor Board's activities promote democracy. To me the lobbying (or threatening) from the different interest groups seem to work against democracy, but I do see what you mean. But there are two big problems with the censor board:

1. The political control of it by the ruling party, which, in practice means the Congress Party, since they have been in power for about 55 of the 64 years of Indian Independence. The extreme paranoia of this party, and the Gandhi family, means that no films of any meaningful political content can be made. A case in point is a film called "Amu", about the massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi and other places after Indira Gandhi's assassination. Officials of the Congress Party not only sat with their goondas with voter rolls to identify all the Sikh residents and their addresses, so that they could be dragged out of their homes and killed, but some of them even stood by and oversaw the carnage. The names of those involved are well known, and two of them have finally been brought under "investigation" by the CBI - Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. In the film, the protagonist character slowly learns about the killings, and, as she interviews various families who have suffered under it, they describe their experience during the terror, and one of them explains how the local politician (who is named) stood by and ordered the killings. At the screening I went to, the director/producer explained that, in order for the film to get the certificate and be released in India, the Censor Board demanded that all the dialogue where the families are talking about the politicians' involvement be muted, and the scene which shows him standing by (with a list in his hand) as the Sikhs are killed be edited out. She said that, even with these and other similar cuts, she still felt it was important for the film to be shown in India, and so she complied. The film, btw, was released a few years before the two politicians I mentioned above were finally brought under investigation.

2. Under the censor rules, once a film gets a certificate from any board anywhere in the country, it can then be released everywhere in the country. For years, non-Hindi film makers have complained that they are forced to get their films certified by their regional censor Boards, who interpret "community standards" in a much more conservative way than the Mumbai board, so that Hindi films are able to get away with far more in the way of titillation, and thus capture a bigger market than they themselves could. When Hindi films were remade into other languages, and the very same scenes from the Hindi version were reproduced, the scenes were required to be cut by the regional boards. Now this may not seem as pressing an issue as the political one I mentioned above, but it is certainly true that inconsistent application of the censor rules from one part of the country to another is not fair to all the film makers.

And of course, there is Amaluu's question about Raj Kapoor's films. The answer is that he was Raj Kapoor! Surely you understand the role of "influence" in Indian officialdom, don't you? :)

Filmi Girl said...

@amaluu I have no idea... I'll dig out my Kapoor book and see if it's mentioned there. It might have been on of those cases where he put in things that went too far in order to keep the things that pushed the envelope a little.

@moimeme Thank you for your comment!! And those are two excellent points. Political influence is definitely something that is problem and I read of quite a few filmmakers who had films cut while jingoistic stuff like Border passed with no problem. Maybe I should have emphasized that more?

And 2. Definitely. That is kind of what happened in the case I linked to. The Censor Board in Bangalore demanded cuts on things in a film that had passed in Mumbai.

One of my big aims was to get Westerners to THINK a little about this because we DO have similar "morality police" in the MPAA Ratings Board but it's all done in secret. And a lot of meaningful political dialogue gets squashed by the corporate boards who produce films... We don't see it so we think it doesn't exist.

Hopefully people will read the comments section, too, so they can see some different (and really valid) points.

Moimeme said...

You're welcome, FG. I think you have done a great job of avoiding the knee jerk reaction to the word "censorship" and have made a very thoughtful post.

But why do you think Border was a "jingoistic" film? It was based on a true incident, and I believe most of the events in the film followed documented reports of the actual battle. There are other films that can be called jingoistic, though, in contrast to the fate of Amu, it is more instructive to note all the films on the Gujarat riots which have been made, all presenting basically the same point of view.

Filmi Girl said...

Sorry, I meant "Gadar." I just got up. :))) That is one where Sunny Deol fights Pakistan by himself, right?

Moimeme said...

Ha, ha, I don't want to tax your brain too much at this hour, but Gadar is the film in which a lot of people (who apparently haven't seen it) claim that Sunny Deol fights off the whole Pakistani army. I did see it, and I thought it was only about 20 guys with guns, which you'll agree is par for the course for any Bollywood hero, especially since he mostly just hides from their bullets, rather than take them head on. Though I don't agree myself, a lot of people do think Gadar is jingoistic. (With Bodyguard fresh on my mind, I don't think I'm in a position to complain about a filmi hero who can knock off even 50 guys with guns and tanks. :) )

bollywooddeewana said...

Great post filmi girl, thought provoking as usual, and you're not wrong about Border being Jingoistic, see my review with subtitled screen caps for proof

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
.article .article-content { word-break: normal !important; }