August 10, 2020
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Just Cut It Out

Who decides how much is too much—the filmmaker, the censors, the audience? A debate....

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Just Cut It Out
imaging: Anshul
Just Cut It Out
  • Early 2004: Films for Freedom is born when the Indian censor board insists that all Indian documentaries to be screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival must be certified by it. Filmmakers come together under the banner of VIKALP, an alternative platform for films.

  • End-July: Final Solutions, a documentary on the Gujarat carnage by Rakesh Sharma, is denied certification by the Central Board of Film Certification preview committee. A sharp critique of the politics of hatred and polarisation, it has won several international awards.

  • End-July: The Bangalore regional office of the cbfc actively tries to prevent a docu film festival by Films for Freedom campaigners from being held in the city. The organisers face police complaints and are subjected to threats and intimidation. The police turn up to ask for censor certificates at the Chennai venue too. Sharma later tells Outlook, "Anupam Kher (the then censor board chief) personally called up the Bangalore police commissioner."

  • October 11: Prakash Jha’s docu-drama on Jayaprakash Narain is to be aired on Doordarshan. Prasar Bharati CEO K.S. Sarma suggests major changes on Emergency-era references. Jha categorically refuses.

     "Every society can inherently deal with social anomalies." Prakash Jha, Filmmaker



    "There can be no simple position. A whole range of opinions exists." Sanjay Kak, Docu Filmmaker 


    "Censorship is necessary. All over the world, they have it."  Asha Parekh, ex-Censor Board Chief


    "Sex should be allowed beyond a point. But.. within limits." Isha Koppikar,Actress 



    Of course, the issue is not new—remember Kissa Kursi Ka (it was censored to the extent of the film rolls being destroyed), but the recent series of events sets the context again for an important debate: is censorship necessary? At the cutting edge of the debate is political ideology and hate speech, rather than obscenity and violence.

    The film fraternity has had a largely fractured position on this: Bollywood has always said, yes, we need "some sort of censorship", and everybody else, no, we don’t. But with the profile of filmmakers in Bollywood changing rapidly, and in the face of a dynamic community of documentary and digital filmmakers and card-holding members of civil society, the pro-censorship lobby is facing a serious challenge.

    Even Karan Johar, the ultimate maker of safe ‘family values’ films, sings the freedom song. "The US system is so good, it allows people to decide for themselves," he says. "Isn’t it more mature to give people freedom to decide?" Mrinal Sen, the grand old man of Indian arthouse cinema, says plainly: "Censorship is stupid."

    Prakash Jha, who, before his current JP controversy, managed to push the boundaries of Hindi slang in Gangaajal, could not agree more. "The moment you give up your right to determine and have your morality guided by someone," he says, "it is bound to be misused. Every individual has a bias." But, says docu filmmaker Sanjay Kak, part of Films for Freedom, "There can be no simple position, a whole range of opinions exists." The debate is complex, nuanced. "Can we have a consensus on how we can curb violence without trampling on free speech?" he asks.

    Some filmmakers, though, like Anurag Kashyap, whose Paanch, based on the brutal Abhyankar family murders in Pune, has been held up by the censors since 2001, cannot wait until then. "If you cannot make a film like Fahrenheit 9/11, what’s the point of living in a democracy?" he asks. He is now trying his luck with Black Friday, a fictionalised account of the Mumbai blasts.

    The argument against censorship is not just against suppression of free speech and expression.It’s also against the ideology of moral policing, lifted straight from British handbooks of another era, which advocates the scissors for everything, from onscreen nudity and sexual display and cruelty to animals to "unnecessary" exhibition of underclothing, "indecorous" dancing and "excessively" passionate love scenes. But who’ll draw the boundaries? Isha Koppikar has appeared in several "item numbers" which could be termed "indecorous" by some, and in a lesbian love scene in Girl Friend.Says she, "If there are no curbs, things will get out of hand. While violence is being emulated by young kids and those easily influenced, sex should be allowed beyond a point because youngsters today are smarter and more exposed to sex than we were. But all of this should be done within limits." Blow hot, blow cold. "We often hear ‘some’ censorship is necessary, but who’ll decide how much is ‘some’?" asks Shohini Ghosh, media scholar, filmmaker. Can one individual, or five, decide?

    This question, of course, gets the goat of Asha Parekh, former censor board chief who was often accused of being a prude. "Why can’t five people decide what a country should see? A board has to exist and there will be a handful of people only who will see the films. Censorship is necessary. All over the world, they have censorship." Parekh may be talking about obscenity and violence, but what about the fact that successive governments have used the censor board as powerful ideology filters? Neither the BJP, nor the Congress, nor even the Left (which banned Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography Dwikhandita) can really take the moral high ground on censorship. "None of them is in a position to cast the first stone," says Kak. The ruling class has always taken on the responsibility of becoming the moral and ideological police.

    Chennai-based Sasikumar, whose recent film Kaya Taran uses the backdrop of the Gujarat riots to tell the story of a survivor of the anti-Sikh riots, is categorical. "The CBFC must be dismantled," he says. "Cinema is the only medium that has pre-censorship." Censoring cinema hardly shields people, with the press, TV, VCDs and DVDs freely accessible. "Praveen Togadia’s speeches are broadcast across 18 news channels," says Sharma. "So why is it considered inflammatory when I document it?" For every political film made on POTA and Manipur, there are millions of CDs of the VHP’s campaign—Ramsevak Amar Raho—containing the most damaging hate speeches circulating freely.

    "The argument in favour of censorship cites pornography and hate speech, but the Indian Penal Code is fairly stringent on both counts and can deal effectively with them," says Sharma. Why give the keys of the kingdom to a handful of people then? "Every society has the inherent strength to deal with different kinds of social anomalies," says Jha. "We should trust in that."

    Everyone Outlook spoke to believed that the censor board should be kept free of government control. Instead of censorship, the board could be asked to rate films and certify them for various age groups, as is done in the US (see What’s in a Rating?). The other new war cry is self-regulation and responsibility. From Mrinal Sen to Prakash Jha and from Rakesh Sharma to Sasikumar, everyone advocates self-regulation, on the lines of the Press Council and television. Only Asha Parekh does not agree. Explains Kumar, "TV programmes have no censorship, the channels get to decide. Yet, we don’t see TV programmes with excessive sex or violence. Such programmes wouldn’t have viewer or advertiser support. Film censorship legitimises certain kinds of sex, violence, feudalism and family values. "

    The final solution for Sharma: "The board is an anachronism, it must reinvent itself." In a way that doesn’t hand over the power of the scissors to whichever government is in power.

    By Sanghamitra Chakraborty with Lata Khubchandani in Mumbai and S. Anand in Chennai
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