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Friday, Dec 03, 2021
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Opinion

Thou Shalt Not See

How are we to understand the ethos of censorship in Bengal? Do the Bengalis shrink away from filmic or other depictions and discussions of sexuality? Or is it just a case of control-freaks deciding how you dress, what you read and see?

Thou Shalt Not See
Thou Shalt Not See
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Last year, around mid-summer, the film director Subrata Sen’s Ek Je Chilo Kanya [There Once Was A Girl] generated heat waves in the already sweltering Kolkata. Konkona Sen-Sharma, now known to most for her later performance in Mr and Mrs Aiyer, made her debut in this film starring as the kanya or girl of the title.

I had heard so much about the film - some said it was racy, scandalous, and steamy; others called it a Bengali version of Fatal Attraction (there were many remakes of films such as Sleeping With the Enemy, or Indecent Proposal in Hindi, but in Bengali this was a novelty); still others commented that it was bold but honest endeavor that was a must see. I went to the theater with some relatives, a trifle wary about the impression the film would make on my aging mother-in-law.

At the end, however, she remarked with a trace of disappointment and sarcasm in her voice "So this was the movie that people warned you about. Why?" And why indeed. I personally felt that the movie was just a thriller - a bad one at that. It was about a young girl, fifteen or thereabouts, getting attracted to her new tenant, who was being portrayed as a dashing young journalist. She begins to stalk the man, tries to attract him to herself with lots of "sexy" gestures that in this context meant biting her full lower lip a lot, tossing her gorgeous mane, and stepping out of the shower wrapped in a big towel.

This year Subrata Sen is back with a new controversial film - Hathat Nirar Jonne [Suddenly for Nira] - a film that was due to be released on July 9th until the regional censor board refused it permission on grounds of being lewd and sexually explicit. The posters of the film had caught my eye earlier not only because the well-known tabla player Bikram Ghosh plays the lead role, but also because of the caption that comes after the title "Sharir jokhon moner katha bole" or when the body speaks for the mind.

What a peculiar fetishization of the body this is I thought, for when does the body not speak for the mind? Even our most mundane experiences and feelings - hunger, thirst, excitement, boredom - are all first felt and then acted out. But clearly the message on the poster was above this kind of Descartes 101. I soon found out what it was when I read the reports on Monday, June 29th, as to why the regional censor board in Kolkata had refused the film’s release. As one of its members Indrani Dutta remarked, "You cannot display anything you want on the screen. We have a responsibility (daya) to put a stop to such ventures."

And what might this "anything" be? Not having seen the film it was hard to tell. I knew that the movie was based on the renowned Bengali writer, Sunil Gangyopadhyay’s Rani O Abinash, which had come out in 1971. Apparently, according to Bikram Ghosh who plays Abinash in the film, "even though it did not directly say so in the original story, in order to render it filmically, the screen version contained two scenes in bed". "In those", he added, "there is some display of the female body. A few curves and contours. But I must say that it was done artistically. Not with the intention to titillate the audience." He went on to remark that it was possible that the regional censor board still refused to treat our audiences as adults and hence the ban.

The plot of the movie does not seem terribly novel - a young bored housewife whose husband is too caught up with his career to spare her much time.So when Abinash, an ex-lover, a bohemian musician reappears in Rani’s life she is, once again, drawn to him. They probably end up having sex, I don’t know, but therein is the transformation of Rani to Nira. There is another woman in the plot too, another friend of Abinash’s in whom too he seeks Nira. Nira, one could surmise is the emblem of Eros in the film, its elusive life principle, the stuff of dreams.

What is so objectionable in this story that calls for a ban? Surprisingly, some members of the regional board have yet to see the movie. One of them Dona Ganguly, wife of the cricketer Sourav Ganguly, said that an object being obscene or not often depends on its manner of depiction. Ashim Mitra, a member of the Union Censor Board has reportedly remarked that "suggestiveness" is the best language of depiction.

I wonder if the film is really deserving of so much noise, whether, like its counterpart last year, it isn’t being hyped too much. In any case even if that were true, it isn’t the moot point. Publicity is part of any public venture. So the captions on the film’s poster may well be a part of the film’s marketing strategy. The more critical and thought provoking issue that emerges from these events is how are we to understand the ethos of censorship in Bengal?

Looking back a few years, when Deepa Mehta came to shoot her film Water in Kolkata, being shunted out of Varanasi, the city did not turn out to be as hospitable to her as she might have imagined. If memory serves me right, a Hindu widow’s desire and her subsequent pawning of her body under the pressure of circumstances was the stated theme of Mehta’s film. But many saw that as disrespectful and provocative and she was forced to fold up the project. Disrespectful of whom? one wonders. Why are we so fearful of provocation? One understands it when groups of people are fearful of a documentary like Fahrenheit 9/11 whose content is explicitly political. But why is it that the Bengalis shrink away from filmic or other depictions and discussions of sexuality?

It is impossible not to remember in this context the ban imposed on Taslima Nasreen’s Dvikhondito [Split Into Two] by the Left Front government. Many had, at the time, objected to Nasreen naming names of friends and lovers in her book arguing that this was a horribly invasive gesture. I find myself in agreement with these objections. But that is not what caused the government to impose its ban. I was recently reminded of the manner in which the Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee declared that he had read the book and had determined that it should be proscribed.

Why? Because Dvikhondito, it was alleged, had offended the sentiments of a religious group. I also remember how a small minority of people - the possible readership of the book - had reacted at the time. If he can read it, so can we, they argued. Most people agreed that reading Nasreen’s recent works was far from a pleasurable activity. Still, it was a choice they would rather have than be told that the book was beyond access.

Taken together these incidents point to a deeper, more long-term phenomenon in Bengali life. A recent conversation with a film historian friend revealed that as early as the 1920s numerous American films, most often starring Rudolf Valentino, raised the ire of the regional censor board that was established in 1918. Why? Because the films depicted inter-racial love and relationships. It was feared that audiences viewing these films might learn the wrong lessons from these examples.

Similarly, when Tagore wrote Chokher Bali, a novel that has recently been made into a film by the director Rituporno Ghosh, he (Tagore) faced tremendous censure from his Bengali readership as the story was about a widow’s bodily lust and untamed sexuality. There appears, at least to this commentator, a steady continuity in public opinion from the late nineteenth century to now. How do we sociologically comprehend this attitude of moral censorship? Even if we call it prudery, it is one shared by large numbers of people, which forces us to at least think about it with some degree of seriousness.

There are some who would argue that Bengalis or Indians are uncomfortable with body talk. This seems rather facile for it is by now well established that there was a surfeit of erotic literature and art in pre-colonial and early colonial India, not to mention the plethora of films in Hindi and Tamil in recent years. Censorship, in the guise of imposing a ban on secular texts, came to India with the British whose initial fear was sedition. But Bengalis adapted the idea of censorship particularly for literary texts, a restriction that was later extended to film.

Anyone who is familiar with the medieval Bengali poet Bharatchandra will know that such poetry would have never seen the light of day in present day or even late colonial Bengal. For the poet wrote explicitly about the god, Shiva and his uncontained sexuality, he also had women openly discussing sex. Yet no one slapped his wrists and told him to be "suggestive". According to the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, we may begin to comprehend the phenomenon of moral censorship by paying attention to the mechanics by which the Bengali middle class had started to construct a "bourgeois sense of moral responsibility" for itself from the late nineteenth century.

An important factor in the creation of this sense of "moral responsibility" was a flux in class relations. The fact that in the middle class’s perception, order and sexuality was perceived as being threatened by the unregulated presence of the lower classes whose earlier feudal or paternal link with the upper orders had snapped owing to the creation of the city, large-scale migration, and eventually the presence of domestic servants in every middle class household. When the cinema hall first came into existence he argues, the perceived threat presented by these factors was exacerbated.

First, the darkness of the cinema hall induced, even temporarily, an absence of social control that the upper classes thought they exercised upon the lower classes. Second, it is possible through cinematic technology to show the human body in close up shots, something that was visually consumed by everyone thereby temporarily reducing the sense of control that existed in the relationship of the upper classes (the feudal lords or paternalists) upon the lower orders.

The experience of viewing a film is very different from watching jatras where the zamindar and his underlings sat within the same space. But in that context the zamindar’s place was clearly marked out as superior. Cinema, in that sense brings a greater democratization of social space. While this is a hugely positive step in many ways, it also leaves a sense of insecurity in people when the content of films is such that they feel it might wrest any imaginary control, or destroy any sense of distance they had with the masses. It is eventually a question of order and control that provided the initial impulse for censorship in literature and film.

The argument makes a lot of sense when we put it in the context of present day, urban Kolkata. Incidents of college principals decreeing that female students must wear salwar kameez and carry dupattas, a fearless Bangladeshi writer’s works being banned, and a Bengali film being suddenly forbidden by the censor board - these seemingly discrete incidents appear not so discrete when we view them as a matter of maintaining a social order.

Needless to say this conception of order is archaic and completely out of sync with the reality we inhabit. But, realistic social vision has never been the strong point of leadership in Bengal.


Rochona Majumdar, currently in Calcutta, is Harper Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor, University of Chicago

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