Understanding India’s Dangerous History Of Film Censorship & Its Implications

Indian Film Censorship
Indian Film Censorship

As the largest democracy in the world, India offers its citizens a comfortable illusion of freedom based on equality, secularism, and liberty. However, a closer inspection of this face value reveals many ugly truths. More recently, these incipient acts of muffling have become less subtle and more frequent. Journalists, writers, thinkers, filmmakers, and public intellectuals have been bearing the brunt of having an opinion opposed to the mainstream and voicing it. More recently, the government brought video streaming over-the-top (OTT) platforms such as Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video, Hotstar, and others,  which were so far under the purview of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This would mean that the platforms will have to obtain certification from the Ministry and as a result, will be subjected to significant levels of content regulation

 In 2015, Homegrown had put forward a series of articles called ‘Muffled,’ by Devang Pathak to highlight this culture of repression, censorship, and injustices in the country. The fact that this series is still relevant because we are having the same conversations even five years later has a lot to say. However, it’s also that we were fighting for our conscience five years ago and we hope to keep on fighting five years hence as well. 

In this article from the same year, Pathak attempts to analyse and dissect India’s rampant censorship of films.

Film censorship in India

An atypical method of passing idle time in India consists of sojourning through the television channels we have at the offer. One such journey offers a rather sorry version of Comedy Central India where an American Sitcom is being consistently beeped to censor the word ‘beer’. The amusement is compounded when you switch the channel to Sony Pix’s Django Unchained - apparently ‘Nigger’ doesn’t deserve the same treatment as ‘beer,’ especially considering it’s not relevant to our culture? At its most minimized level, these examples do a reasonably good job of beginning to touch upon censorship in India and its longstanding issue with the freedom of expression, especially when it comes to film and television.

Watching hangover 2 on HBO .. Subtitles just said “black please” ... Used black for the n word .. Amazing
— Jai Row Kavi (@Jaiplaysdrums) July 22, 2013

This isn’t Acceptable. A simple Google search is likely to tell you why.

The critically acclaimed Court (2014) ironically touches upon the very issue even while being censored for its own (objectively) inoffensive content.  Still, director Chaitanya Tamhane told HuffPost India that he didn’t want to contest these small lines as they were already worried that “the whole film might be seen as seditious.” This, in a nutshell, is the current situation for independent film-makers in India today. Had our lofty censor board truly seen Court for its power to incite cultural resistance, who knows whether we might ever have been able to watch the film, but we’re grateful the film’s subtlety was lost on them.

The debate about censorship in India, which we have been extensively covering over the last few months, consists of two major concerns — one from the point of view of the artists/creators who demand a platform for free expression unto themselves; and the other from the consistently selective forms of outrage which seem to be reserved for India’s own definition of political correctness. When it comes to protests and clamour for censorship in India, however, no other section receives as heavy scrutiny as the world’s largest film industry. We took a trip back in time so we could connect the past, present and future of this debate.

History And The Law Speak For Themselves

If we are to fully understand the extent and rationale behind film censorship in India, we have to understand the historical and institutional support provided to curbing freedom of expression in India.

While the USA’s comprehensive First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” no such liberty is available to Indians, a strange fact if you consider the views of Indians on civil rights in the pre-independence era.

The Indian freedom struggle was a mix of moderates and extremists and yet, an issue which found agreement among them all was the upholding of civil rights. The Moderates supported Extremist Bal Gangadhar Rao Tilak’s right to write and speak what he felt. The 1931 Karachi Convention of the Congress had passed a resolution on Fundamental Rights — a part of which was the guaranteed right of free expression of opinion through speech and press. But the narrative changes when we come to the drafting of the Indian Constitution.

The Indian Constituent Assembly For Drafting The Constitution

The Constituent Assembly was formed to debate the drafting of the Indian Constitution and to assist the Assembly, several sub-committees tackling different subjects were formed. The Fundamental Rights subcommittee was widely in agreement over principle save for one dilemma — the extent to which individual freedom could be allowed to be sacrificed to ensure the safety and security of the State. The Constitution was being drafted at a tumultuous time in the history of the new born nation as communal riots and political unrest were widespread, a fact which may have contributed to the lawmakers finally adopting a limitation to the Freedom of Speech.

While the Constitution went on to ultimately adopt the controversial Article 19 (2) which went on to state that the freedom of speech and expression shall not affect “the operation of any existing law, in so far as it relates to, or prevent the State from making any law on matters concerning libel, slander, defamation, contempt of court, any matter offending decency and morality, or undermines the security of or tends to overthrow, the State”, there were many voices which opposed the infringing of the individual’s fundamental rights.

Mahboob Ali Baig, a member of the Assembly, strongly protested the adoption of the article by comparing it to Nazi Germany.“This means the citizens could only enjoy those rights which the legislature would give them, permit them from time to time. That cuts at the very root of Fundamental Rights and the Fundamental Rights cease to be fundamental,” said Baig, a statement which is shockingly relevant even today. Two years after the Indian Constitution came into effect, the Parliament passed the Cinematograph Act of  1952.

The Act was enacted to provide for the certification of films for exhibition and for regulating their exhibition. In brief, the law offered the following provisions by empowering the Central Government to constitute a Censor Board consisting of 12-25 members, for the purpose of sanctioning films for public exhibition. After examination of a film, the Board either sanctions the film for restricted or unrestricted public exhibition; or directs to carry out necessary modifications; or refuse to sanction the film for public exhibition. But the most critical part of the act lies in its relation to Article 19.

Section 5 B(1) of the act is in agreement with Article 19 (2) by stating “a film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, the film or any part of it is against the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.” Furthermore, Section 5 B(2) goes on to empower the Central government to issue guidelines as it deems fit to guide the Board with regards Section 5B (1). Thus, the Central Government holds immense power in deciding the content which is ‘suitable’ for the average Indian audience.

The Assault

If one was to enumerate the entire perplexing history of institutionally sanctioned censorship or the banning of movies in India, the task would be mind-numbingly painful simply due to the sheer length of the list of movies. This gets further compounded by the additional pressure provided by political and social groups who enforce an ‘unofficial ban’ on the content they deem to be offensive or in contradiction with their beliefs. 

Let’s talk about actual instances when political or religious discourse attempted to decide the cinematic content Indian audiences should watch.

We set an early tone for prudish and overtly cautious censorship with bans or delay in the release of movies which portrayed communal violence or controversial topics such as a Muslim family during the partition in Garam Hawa or an exploration of the reasons for Nathuram Godse’s assassination of Mahatma Gandhi Gokul Shankar. While the British Colonial rule was adamant in suppressing any voice of opposition even in the form of movies such as Bhakta Vidur (1921) and Tamil movie Thyag Bhoomi (1939), it appears liberated Indians were not to be spared from such authoritarian close-mindedness either.
The rule of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent Emergency remains one of the most heavily censored and sparsely reported events of Indian History and naturally, films were not spared either. Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) was banned during the National Emergency after its release due to its similarity with the life of Indira Gandhi and was only released later with a broadcast on Doordarshan under the Janata Party, thus turning into a political gimmick. But the turn of events with Kissa Kursi Ka (1978) remains the highlight of the decade.

Kissa Kursi Ka

Touted as India’s first political spoof about Sanjay Gandhi’s power, the Shabana Azmi-starrer was refused a Censor Board certificate and when the Emergency was declared in 1975, the master print and negatives of the movie were confiscated by Congress Workers from the CBFC Office and burnt. Sanjay Gandhi and his aides were found guilty of the crime and Mr Gandhi even served a month in jail for the crime. Naturally, rigorous censorship inside and outside the purview of the law has since become a staple practice.
The criticism or portrayal of political leaders on reel often received heavy scrutiny and censorship, be it from the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi or a Satyajit Ray documentary about Sikkim before its inclusion to the Indian Union. But the most recent widely discussed example of censorship revolves around the state of Gujarat and the 2002 Gujarat Riots.
More than 22 short films and documentaries were made in the three years following the Godhra Riots and almost all of them faced stiff opposition of some kind. The Central Board refused to certify films like Chand Bujh Gaya (2005) as they dealt with the Gujarat riots while documentaries like internationally acclaimed Final Solution and Aakrosh (2010) were delayed or refused a censor certificate until intervention from the judiciary. But the most famous case of banning in relation to Gujarat is related to Aamir Khan for reasons which are hard to digest prima facie.

The actor voiced his support for the Narmada Bachao Andolan and lobbied for the rehabilitation of those affected by the project. The Youth Wing of the State BJP orchestrated a ban on Rang De Basanti  (2006) (a film which was said to have been cleared only after being given the go-ahead by the Defence Ministry and Chiefs) and even asked for a ban on Fanaa with threats to vandalise theatres screening the movie. Thus, two movies which were cleared by the CBFC were not shown in the State of Gujarat at the time of release due to unjust political pressure.
The years of suppression and banning has now created a culture where not just politicians, but socio-cultural influencers feel entitled to not only voice their opposition but also derail creative expression. The Shiv Sena had notoriously got Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) removed from theatres as they opposed the lesbian relationship in the movie or threatened the release of My Name Is Khan (2010) due to Shahrukh Khan’s remarks in favour of including Pakistani players in the IPL. The pressure of the Right Wing groups forced Deepa Mehta to shift the shooting of her movie Water (2005) to Sri Lanka. If the protests against Haider and PK seemed to lack teeth, the VHP’s latest call for a ban on Kamal Hasan’s Uttama Villian (2015) will leave you even more confused. The VHP has taken offence to the trailer of the movie which shows the demon Hiranyakashyapu debating with his Son Prahlad to worship him as God and not Vishnu. Thankfully, the court recently refused to entertain any plea against the movie.

Judiciary To The Rescue? Perhaps To A Certain Extent...

The Indian Judiciary has been lauded in recent times for its dismissal of Section 66A as well as the dismissal of ludicrous petitions such as those which sought to declare Taj as a Shiva Temple. The faith in the Indian Judiciary gets re-affirmed to a certain extent once we bear witness to their efforts in preserving Indian cinematic integrity.
In a 1989 case on the Tamil movie ‘Ore Oru Gramathile’ (In One Village), the Supreme Court had passed an important judgement by over-ruling the Madras High Court’s revocation of the film’s ‘U’certification. The movie critiqued the reservation system which was portrayed as being unfair to Brahmins and fearing a volatile reaction to the movie in the State, the High Court had ruled against the movie. The Supreme Court held the producers right to use films as means of broadcasting his message as well as delivering an all-important judgement which seems to be falling on deaf ears of our central and state government — “It is the duty of the State to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the State. The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem.

Veteran Documentary Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan always found solace by turning to the judiciary when the existing cinematic apparatus failed to support his work. He filed cases against Doordarshan when they refused to broadcast his documentaries- In Memory Of Friends and Ram Ke Naam. He also challenged the suggested cuts of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal for his movie War and Peace.
While there are many examples of Indian courts supporting freedom of expression in films through legitimate and often frivolous cases, the Supreme Court had passed an early judgement where they noted that films have to be treated separately from other forms of art and expression because a motion picture is ‘able to stir up emotions more deeply than any other product of art’. There are also stray instances where prima-facie frivolous cases against an actor/actress’s film posters are even accepted by judges. An MP judge in fact directed the police to file a case against Aamir Khan for his PK poster.

 CBFC Can Be Reformed, But What About Their Attitude?

The subject of film censorship in India is a comprehensive argument due to the varying outcomes sought by the stakeholders involved — the filmmakers, government and the audience, but everyone finds themselves in agreement about one issue- the current film certification pattern in the country must change. The archaic and senseless ‘cuts’ and ‘beeps’ which are made render the entire exercise of motion pictures redundant and an age-wise division of movies such as ‘12 And Above’ and ‘15 And Above’ is an urgent need of the hour to ensure creativity and entertainment for all age groups of the country. The film fraternity has repeatedly clamoured for a board which does not indulge in moral policing and Rakesh Sharma, documentary film-maker of Final Solution (2004), has sought that the Censor Board should be reconstituted to simply rate movies. The process and law can be changed but what about the attitude?

We must be reminded that we live in a country where even adult films are heavily censored — from the muting of a joke in The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013) which said ‘all nuns are lesbians’ to the banning of 50 Shades Of Grey (2015) after asking for lengthy cuts for a movie which was clearly aimed at mature audiences. If these limitations anger one as a film audience, one should be even more concerned when the fringe groups or governments try to enforce their pre-conceived agenda on films with a dynamic definition of decency and tastes.

Still from 50 Shades of Grey.

A brief summary of India’s problem with censorship of films can be encapsulated in two basic attitudinal hurdles — fear and a lack of ‘put your money where your mouth is’. As was pointed out at the beginning of the article, fear has prompted Indian lawmakers and politicians to ban or censor movies which did not meet with the popular public opinion. A ‘caretaker’ attitude which has been adopted by the Indian government through its laws and guidelines is nothing short of a latent dictatorship about something which should be the lowest priority in a developing country — where the public wants to spend their Friday night. The bizarre and dangerous curtailing of documentaries like Ram Ke Naam (1992) and Final Solution signals that for 68 years the Indian Government and top organisations have been adamant to save us from the very thing our National Emblem upholds — the Truth.

Lastly, comes our lack of a commercial culture, which simply does not value art enough to pay or fight for it. We are one of the largest consumers of illegal downloads and torrents, partly supported by our archaic censorship which boosts such behaviour but also because of a simpler notion — it’s free. While we are the largest film industry in the world, the eternally protest-bound domestic audience is never keen on understanding a simple concept — art survives on patronage. Any person or group has the right to protest against what they perceive is in contravene of their values but if they truly want to hurt an artist or the art where it hurts, they should refuse to pay or subscribe to their work. Unfortunately for these protesters ( and fortunately for the artists), their protests and sometimes violent backlash only help promote the condemned work as is evident from the humongous collections of PK.

While an attitude change in our government and the general public might be a long term process, urgent reform of the CBFC board is paramount. The drive to change the certification ages as well as getting filmmakers and industry voices in charge of the Board is an indispensable change which needs to be put into effect as soon as possible. We can then slowly start pushing the envelope of acceptability by recognising that we have an Indian public which is mature enough to handle truth and fiction while understanding the difference between the two. Once we have accepted that, we can then get rid ourselves of the ‘ban’ culture which has quickly made us a laughing and pitiable stock in the whole world due to the enduring criticism of such attitude. The only thing India’s censorship reflects is what Oscar Wilde summed up a century ago.

“Books that the world calls immoral, are books that show the world its own shame.”

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