My first experience with film censorship, or at least the first one I was aware of, was during Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. For most, the mention of Johnny Depp’s demon barber conjures up images of him slicing away at throats, singing gleefully as crimson spatters line his trap door, through which his dead customers fall and break their necks. I’m familiar with these scenes in their entirety because my uncle lives in the United States and was able to bring me a copy during one of his visits. The cut released in India however, both in theatres and on home video, had to pass through the Central Board of Film Certification, an equally vicious entity that had sliced away at the film and bled it of its flavour. These scenes as I saw them for the first time unfolded quite differently. The film skipped over the act of throat-slicing, and no bodies ever hit the ground. I used to think my American Casino Royale BluRay was a director’s cut with an added sex scene, so I’m not sure fifteen-year-old me would’ve registered Sweeney Todd as having been meddled with externally were it not for lyrics and music being abruptly skipped over.
Tim Burton was one of the lucky ones. The Hateful Eight lost over a minute and a half last month. The Wolf of Wall Street was slashed by six back in 2013. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo wasn’t granted a certificate at all because Fincher refused to re-edit, and Fifty Shades of Grey… well, CBFC head Pahlaj Nihalani didn’t even watch it despite voluntary cuts, and it’s now amongst seventy or so films to have been banned in the country. If you ask me, that’s seventy too many for a democracy that promises liberty of thought and expression in the first line of its constitution. The CBFC has been around since 1920, but I’m not concerned with how things were under the British, back when local police chiefs had censorial authority. I’m concerned with right now.
PART I – THE NIHALANI INTERVIEW
Where the moviegoing experience is concerned, Indian censorship is an annoyance. From muting swear words, to avoiding gore by zooming in to corners of the screen, to inelegantly cut scenes of nudity, making them look like bad YouTube vlogs. Any time there’s a cigarette on screen, the text “Smoking Is Injurious To Health” appears at the bottom right in block letters (or if you’re lucky, just “Smoking Kills”), a stipulation that made Woody Allen decide not to release Blue Jasmine here, and rightly so. It gets even worse if someone smokes in a film with subtitles, because then the warning comes up right in the middle, making every line of dialogue begin with a no-smoking warning too. This is after the CBFC attaches not one, but two anti-smoking ads to every theatrical release, so it’s not like the message isn’t clear. But this is more than just about being anti-art and pro-annoyance. There’s a hypocrisy at the core of Indian censorship that stems from an anti-discourse culture of political appeasement. At the risk of sounding hypocritical myself, I’d probably respect the censors a lot more if they weren’t so sloppy.
In recent months, Indian cinemas welcomed Spectre, The Hateful Eight, The Danish Girl, Deadpool and Spotlight, among several others. Spectre was delayed by a week so that CBFC head Pahlaj Nihalani could cut out most of the kiss between Daniel Craig and Monica Belluci because it was “too long.” The response from audiences was not kind, leading to the viral spread of #SanskariJamesBond (#CulturedJamesBond), a meme about what 007 would be like if Nihalani and co. had their way entirely. Bond getting his mum’s blessing before bedding women may elicit chuckles from you and me, but it angered Nihalani (a man who wanted to ban the word ‘lesbian’), and the interview detailing his reasons for the shortened kiss reveal a concerning thought process:
Speaking of Spectre, surely Bond would kiss beautiful women he encounters, he isn't going to say Namaste to them.
So why didn't people object to the earlier Bond films? There was not a single kiss shown in Skyfall. That time no one thought of the sanskaari thing? We have passed the kiss! We only asked them to reduce the duration by 20 seconds.
I don't get this logic. A kiss is a kiss. Ten seconds or one minute.
(Gets angry). This means you want to do sex in your house with your door open. And show to people the way you are doing sex.
We are talking about a kiss, not mating.
(Gets more angry) You are asking the same question again and again. You have any further questions or not?
The interview is fascinating, and it has a very clear fascist undertone that I’m not sure he’s even aware of. At one point he says India is a country where people still bathe in water from the Ganges, and he asks “Aap chahte ho aise desh mein sab free ho?” (“Do you want everyone to be free in a country like this?”), which I’m surprised wasn’t the main focus of people’s response. The bit about “doing sex” with the door open went viral, obviously. Where it gets specifically political however is a few questions down, concerning the topic of ‘Bombay,’ Mumbai’s former name.
The city’s name was changed in 1996. Since then, various political groups in the state of Maharashtra (the Shiv Sena in particular, who aren’t even in power) have made it their moral duty to make sure the change sticks in the collective consciousness, by any means necessary. That includes stoning and ransacking business that have the word ‘Bombay’ in their names, even if they’d been around for over a century. It’s been a few years since anything like that actually happened, but one of the CBFC’s rules, per the Maharashtra government’s guidelines, is that no film taking place after 1995 can feature the use of the word ‘Bombay’ even though it’s still common parlance. Better safe than sorry, I guess.
Everything here raises the question of whether or not the CBFC believes Indians can think for themselves. It seems like an obvious reason behind censorship, especially when Nihalani has been so vocal about not wanting us exposed to the cinematic equivalent of “doing sex with the door open.” However, when asked about a propaganda video he made for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nihalani said “Are you saying those people clapping in the cinema halls are fools? You have to understand cinema, don't go by a few people on Twitter. People are respecting it, like a national anthem.” Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t sound like it’s about protecting people. Also, the question was about why his video about ‘Modi’s India’ was filled with the achievements of other nations.
If his last comparison is lost on you, you’ve probably never watched a movie in Mumbai where every film is preceded by our national anthem, but that’s a topic for another day. Here, we have a man in charge of deciding what is and isn’t permissible in a movie, taking a very directly political stance on his own work – a film glorifying our Prime Minister – and deciding it’s okay to run in cinemas, which leads me to one of two conclusions. He’s either using censorship as a political tool, or he genuinely doesn’t see the contradictory nature of his own opinions. Either one is a possibility, which means the CBFC is being run either by a demagogue, or someone too oblivious to be one. Maybe it’s both; I can’t really say for sure. Since I’m already picking apart his arguments though, I’d say it’s hypocritical of him to accuse the reporter of having no understanding of cinema, given his own anti-art stance and, well…
PART II – THE EXPOSURE HYPOCRISY
Indian movie culture, like most in the age of social media, involves widespread excitement as a big movie approaches. Nihalani and CBFC don’t control that conversation, but they do control the end result, which means part of the buildup involves worrying about how much of a given movie they’re going to cut. They have three ratings or certifications: U or Universal, the equivalent of the MPAA’s G rating, A or Adult, the equivalent of NC-17, and U/A or Universal/Adult, a hybrid akin to PG-13. Films like Deadpool and The Hateful Eight were going to be rated A regardless, but the looming question prior to their release was how much of each film would actually make it into theatres. Even movies meant for adults go through the hands of children with scissors.
The strange thing about Indian censorship is the people in charge don’t seem to know what they’re doing. TV channels, per guidelines from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, cut out words like ‘beef’ for the sake of religious appeasement, along with any mention of alcohol. Those rules are fairly clear, but they also cut out anything that might seem remotely sexual, even in a roundabout way. Like the first syllable of the word “assets” during Predator. On a recent episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which now features frequent fades to and from black mid-sketch, they even censored the word “hunk.” With mild and questionable stuff being cut at the drop of a hat, what would that mean for someone as cinematically violent and explicit as Quentin Tarantino? Having already watched The Hateful Eight during its roadshow run in America, I simply had to see for myself.
The first use of the word ‘bitch’ was muted. The second was not. The next thirty or so were, followed by one that wasn’t, and then for some reason they muted the phrase ‘sales pitch’ (I guess they thought Walton Goggins was saying ‘sales bitch’?) They also muted ‘whore,’ which is unsurprising since Nihalani cited the film’s violence against women as a big reason for cutting it – though one has to wonder why that was only limited to ‘bad’ words, and not to Daisy getting punched in the face a dozen times. ‘Motherfucker’ was censored. ‘Motherfucking’ and ‘motherfuckers’ were not. ‘Penis’ was audible, but euphemisms like ‘dingus’ ‘johnson’ didn’t make it, and it’s not like audiences don’t know what’s being said either. The certificate details all the other changes, with gore and blood being cut out extremely selectively, but an unfortunate byproduct was entire plot points being muddled. For instance, one character’s death was cut out in such a way that he simply disappears from Minnie’s haberdashery. One minute he’s there, the next he isn’t.
It’s hard to think of the CBFC’s approach as uniform within a given film, but what’s even more perplexing is the trend of selective censorship in general. The Danish Girl, which came out the very same day as The Hateful Eight, featured no cuts at all, though of course the “Smoking Is Injurious To Health” messages came up anytime a main character was smoking. Or when an extra in the background was smoking. Or, and I kid you not, when someone in a painting was holding a cigarette. Yes, a two-dimensional cigarette made of paint. Still, what was miraculous was that scenes of Eddie Redmayne’s penis, not too dissimilar from scenes of Samuel L. Jackson’s, were left completely unaltered. In fact, when Alicia Vikander appeared topless, it struck me that this was the first time I had ever seen nudity in an Indian cinema. Nihalani claimed it was because he felt the nudity was relevant to the story (as if irrelevant nudity is still his to cut), but the big difference between the two films? One was a major facet of mainstream conversation prior to release. The other wasn’t.
Spotlight made it through the censors unscathed, but Deadpool, which had everyone talking beforehand (specifically about censorship, in fact), received its fair share of cuts despite the A rating. Why would I compare the two films? Well, because the word ‘blowjob’ was only censored in one of them, and it certainly wasn’t the tiny drama about journalism. In fact, Deadpool’s certificate reads like a marketing gag for the movie:
“1. Muted the words ‘Asshole’, ‘Mother Fucker’, ‘Balls’, ‘Blowjob’, ‘Touching Myself’, ‘24 Ball Gags’, ‘Vagina’, ‘Bitch’, Dick’, ‘Suck the Cock’, ‘Testicles’, ‘Dildo’ wherever it occurs.”
The censors even cut the phrase “I’m touching myself tonight” in such a way that it sounded like “I’m fucking myself tonight,” so good job on making a dirty film even dirtier. Now that I think about it, Wade Wilson wasn’t the only X-Man to go under the knife. Wolverine’s cameo in X-Men: First Class was sans dialogue, and you can bet yours that Hugh Jackman’s ass was nowhere to be seen in Days of Future Past. It’s strange that even the more family-friendly installments of the franchise are interfered with, but then again, these are films that draw a big crowd. People talk about them on every media platform, and it’d be hard for someone with a vested interest in moral policing to miss them. With the way things are going, I fully expect Oscar Isaac calling himself “Krishna” in X-Men: Apocalypse to end up on the floor of whichever bathroom the CBFC calls an office, because the most likely alternative is protest over being offended.
PART III – THE BIGGER PICTURE
Indian theatres weren’t always strict about letting kids into A films. Even at the age of fourteen, I never had an issue buying a ticket. That is, of course, until The Da Vinci Code in 2006. Protesting movies isn’t an uncommon act around the world, and regardless of how I might feel about it, it’s a fundamental right people ought to enjoy. On the other hand, so is making and selling art. More often than not, Indian protests against films, books and paintings end up with at least some Government backing if the protests happen to be on religious grounds. Some of it is for political gain, which is unsurprising since we have more religious people than any other country, but some of it is a matter of legal procedure. Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code is a blasphemy law, and regardless of the specific wording (which deals largely with intent), the interpretation often comes down to ‘offending people’s religious sentiments.’
Laws and social mindsets are symbiotic. Move one a step towards progress and the other usually follows suit. Enforce one as the norm, and the other sticks as well. For a laws that have been around longer than we’ve been independent, it’s a chicken-and-egg argument. Sometimes the response to offensive art is downright silly. A few weeks ago, comedian Kiku Sharda was arrested for doing an impression of religious leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. You know, this guy. The arresting officers, who cited Section 295A, were pressured by the God-man’s followers (Singh himself didn’t seem to care), and the cops went way, way out of their jurisdiction to arrest him. I’m talking four states away. He was sentenced to fourteen days of judicial custody by a local court, but it wasn’t long until he was out on bail and short about $1500. The national outcry was on the right side of the issue (I’m tossing nuance out the window for this one, some things just don’t warrant it), but what’s especially ludicrous is that he’s a sketch comedian, and his job is to bring other people’s words and jokes to life. Not a single producer or writer was charged, and these fundamentalist goons would never go after an English language comedian since their audience would likely comprise the elite and influential, whereas Kiku tends to perform mostly in Hindi. Selective censorship isn’t limited to the CBFC.
Kiku Sharda, however, is a lesser example. In the mid ‘90s, paintings of nude Hindu goddesses by Muslim artist M.F. Husain (also known as “India’s Picasso”) were reprinted two and a half decades after their creation. They angered Hindu fundamentalists who not only wanted him charged under both 295A and 153A (causing enmity between religious groups, given our long history with Hindu-Muslim conflict), but they also attacked his house and vandalized his art work once the charges were thrown out. A decade later, hundreds of lawsuits were filed against him for ‘obscene art.’ While these were eventually thrown out by the Supreme and High courts, their standing in local judiciaries and the numerous death threats against him were enough to drive him into exile in 2006. He died in 2011 without ever returning home.
Like America’s Evangelical right, Hindu fundamentalist groups and political parties tend to conflate religion and morality with nationalism and cultural purity. Even divorced from religious implications (to whatever extent it’s possible), ideas of nation and culture can be just as dogmatic. “If you don’t like it, leave!” isn’t an uncommon go-to, a bizarre one given its anti-democracy vibe, though it’s sometimes modified in the form of anti-Pakistan sentiments (“Go back to Pakistan!”) because, well, that’s a very long and complicated chapter that isn’t quite over yet. The lines between ‘critical of the Government/Supreme Court’ and ‘anti-national’ are never going to be crystal clear in any nation that values its cultural identity, but what makes the issue more complicated is our anti-sedition law.
While originally put in place by the British in 1860 so we wouldn’t revolt against oppression, it’s currently a topic of controversy because of student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU. The issue is complicated, involving a doctored video, a confession under duress, and a lot of political dilution and ulterior motives, but the long and short of it is that it revolves around supposedly ‘anti-national’ slogans, and the big legal (and national, and moral) debate is about the difference between dissent and sedition.... Oh, and a student leader was arrested despite not having shouted the slogans himself.
That’s the big thing in all this, the idea that we should be allowed to punish offensive speech, and that there’s a clear demarcation between dissent and anti-nationalism. Where’s the line between supporting the actions of a terrorist, and condemning the judicial process by which he was tried? And if there can never be one, ought there be punishment for the former if there’s no discernible action or intent, leaving it a matter of sentiment, and sentiment alone? While there can certainly be clear-cut cases of supporting terrorists through speech and commination, JNU isn’t one of them, but our national discourse is currently transfixed with the idea of what nationalism means. Its treatment as an objective standard allows for the condemnation of those that don’t meet its goals, because at the end of the day it’s dictating how people ought to feel. Criminalize the ‘wrong’ kind of feeling, and you’re left with democracy in name only. Place ‘cultural protectors’ in the seat of power, and you’re deciding what kind of expression is legal, like in the case of cinema.
Indian films aren’t immune to censorship either, and while the reasons for non-certification could be anything from ‘raunchiness’ (Kya Kool Hai Hum 3 in 2015) to violence (Paanch in 2001) to the intersection of sexuality and religion (the aptly titled Unfreedom in 2015), ‘anti-nationalism’ is perhaps the most backward yet fascinating reason of all. School textbooks in India give us a hagiographic depiction of Mahatma Gandhi and our freedom-fighters, and their supposed moral purity is part of our creation myth. In 1963, Gokul Shankar was banned for depicting the psychological motivations of Gandhi’s assassin. In 2013, Papilio Buddha was banned due to its criticism of Gandhi, and only released once anti-Gandhi dialogue was muted.
Gandhi’s anti-black racism, his predatory practices, his bizarre sexual rituals, his alleged bisexuality, and the fact that he was a wife-beater are all well documented, but they rarely (if ever) come up in common discourse. In fact, learning all of this in my late teens was a shock to my system because of the hagiographic picture that had been painted for me all my life. It’s that same cognitive dissonance that’ll likely make people react with anger to a paragraph like this, or accuse me of some sort anti-Gandhi agenda as if I’m trying to undermine the achievements of the man whose face is on all our paper money. Is writing about it here poking the bear? Sure! But any heated response is likely to be another conflation of criticism of an individual with anti-national sentiment. A strange idea considering many of these ideas, such as his racism, come from direct quotes. In fact, the abhorrent violence against his wife is detailed in his autobiography.
The need to deify freedom fighters is intrinsically linked to our need to see ourselves as morally upright, despite the definition of such a thing being rather narrow. Televised debates about striking down discriminatory laws against homosexuality involve people yelling about how it’s ‘not our culture.’ It’s an argument commonly used against discourse on sex and sexuality in general, which is contradictory considering the Kama Sutra and the sexually explicit temples at Khujuraho, the latter of which Gandhi supposedly wanted to destroy. It’s no surprise then that the ‘moral purity’ we claim for the Father of our Nation, the same one we allow to permeate all our discourse, involves censorship and the destruction of art. That’s part of our creation myth too.
PART IV – A BETTER TOMORROW
The Indian Diaspora has been making its way Westward for decades, and the phenomenon even has a name. ‘Brain-drain’ derisively refers to our best and brightest opting for jobs and colleges in America, but we also lay claim to the likes of M. Night Shyamalan, who’s never even been here. Our relationship to Western culture is complicated, to say the least. For a period in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Indian films heavily featured ‘NRI Nostalgia,’ stories of Non Resident Indian citizens in the West returning to their roots, reconnecting with a culture many felt they were losing. Western culture was simultaneously ‘in’ as well as an infringement, and still is during many conversations. America alone doesn’t make up the West, but it’s a huge chunk of it culturally, and whenever issues of liberty are debated in India (from LGBT rights, to censorship, to free speech), The U.S. inevitably comes up on at least one side, if not both. The left espouses America’s journey towards freedom for all, while the right brings up its cultural and moral bankruptcy in a manner not too dissimilar from America’s own right. As far as the censorship debate goes, America is at the center once again, even if no one mentions it explicitly.
Where do things stand as of right now? For one thing, #SanskariJamesBond worked. The social media outcry back in November sparked conversations within the Government, resulting in the creation of a parallel committee to revamp the CBFC, headed by acclaimed filmmaker Shyam Benegal. Changes haven’t quite kicked in yet (recommendations are likely to begin in a few weeks), and the plan seems to be to get the CBFC out of the censorship business and limit its authority to certification only, which is how the Motion Picture Association of America does it. Well, kind of. There’s still a glaring problem that these changes won’t address.
Having just moved back from New York last month, I’m often asked about how film censorship and certification works in the United States. I tell people the ratings are similar but that there’s no censorship whatsoever, and I think about how great that is. It wasn’t always that way, though. Between 1930 and 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code, or the ‘Hays code’ was in full effect, dictating moral guidelines that were only a tad worse than what we have right now, but America eventually moved forward. The MPAA, a trade association had been around since 1922, took over the film rating side of things. While its system is sometimes senseless and contradictory, it’s a valuable alternative to allowing Government interference. What no one in India seems to be talking about when America comes up is that Hollywood got the Government out completely, whereas the CBFC is still a Government body regardless of whether or not it’s granted censorship powers. Even the committee to revamp it is made up of people appointed by the Government.
Now, as much as I talk about how great it would be to have this, that or the other, I know change doesn’t happen overnight. I know that before the Indian Government stops being solely in charge of what films can be seen by whom (or at all), they’re going to need to test out this new system where they take a step back. Neither this new proposed CBFC nor some hypothetical non-government organization will solve any of the problems I discussed in Part III, and the nature of discourse on art and offense is something we’ll need to change from within. Hell, as long as archaic laws like 295A are in place, non-censorship of films isn’t going to stop people from taking legal action when their feelings are hurt. Whether or not physical edits are made to films that might be offensive, will they be given ratings that allow them to screen publicly, and could that result in legal persecution under 295A anyway? Laws like 295A are often put in place to prevent communal violence, but they go about it from the inside-out, targeting the potential targets of violence for disagreeable expression, as opposed to targeting the violent. They’re a form of censorship too, and they’ll probably be done away with in due time as well - but I’m getting ahead of myself.
We’ve taken our first step. We’ve made sure the conversation is happening, that too amongst the people who matter, and while it may not result in the dissolution of the current system just yet, it’s a massive revamping, which is really the best we could hope for given that the big push was a viral hashtag. Maybe the Deadpool sequel will come out here as intended. Maybe I’ll be able to buy an uncut version of Sweeney Todd soon. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll finally learn to agree to disagree.