Censorship and cinema

Over the years, many fringe groups in India have resorted to extra-legal (read violent) methods of censoring books, plays and films, and Raj Thackrey is threatening the same again. If the police took immediate action and jailed goons who tear down posters and ransack premises, and courts handed out three-four years in prison on charges of intentional destruction of property, trespassing etc, mob violence might probably all but disappear. What would not disappear, however, is censorship of the legal kind – the once practiced by government. And particularly the one resorted to by the Central Board of Film Certification.

The original Indian constitution stated that Indians had the right to freedom of speech and expression subject to article 19(2) –

Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall effect the operation of any existing law insofar as it relates to, or prevents the state from making any law relating to, libel, slander, defamation, contempt of court or any matter which offends the decency or morality or which undermines the security of, or tends to overthrow, the state.

A limited right corrupted by the use of undefinable words like “decency” and “morality”, but a right, nonetheless. But Nehru’s socialist government stripped us of all our rights by amending the constitution twice and introducing the concept of “reasonable restrictions”. So, if Indians cannot open their mouth without asking permission from the government, how can they make films or write books without fearing that Big Brother is always watching?

In 2002, Someswar Bhowmik wrote a brilliant article on how the crooked idea of film censorship was thought up and given legal armor. And it is scary how courts have consistently failed to protect the citizens from the whims of government and parliament. Filmmakers like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani don’t like the idea of their cinematic liberties being curtailed. But Anurag Kashyap is probably one of CBFC’s worst victims since his film Paanch has not been granted certification. One excuse the CBFC gives – there are no positive characters in the film. So what, one might ask. But the constitution says “reasonable restrictions” can be placed on freedom of expression, and reasonable equals arbitrary. It was India’s Supreme Court, however, that dealt the death blow to freedom of expression when it said – “censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary.”.

Government sanctioned censorship is not a virtuous act but a brutal murder of the very idea of freedom.

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  • you12  On August 2, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    Do you think this may be one of the reasons why we don’t have good films in India? If what you are saying is true filmmakers like Martin Scorsese would have died without making a film!

    Individual Freedom: The barometer of a society’s progress.

  • aristotlethegeek  On August 2, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    It is not the only reason, but it surely is one of them.

    There is a difference between a government restriction on cinematic liberty and a market restriction on cinematic liberty. Under the former regime, public performance of an unrated film is prohibited by government – no theatrical release, no television release, no home video release – even if your target is an extremely niche audience. But a market restriction means – theaters might be unwilling to display your film because the subject might be too risque for their normal audience (happens in many rural communities in the US), your producer might not finance the project because he fears that the audience is too small to make a profit – that kind of thing.

    Considering this, and the fact that Martin Scorsese does his work in the US, he is not dying anytime soon due to government censorship because – the US does not censor films; the rating system there is run by the industry body MPAA, and unrated films might not be able to get access to most theaters, but still, films are not censored by the government.

    The Indian problem primarily is an audience problem – the smaller film makers have not yet managed to understand audience demographics – what do people want to watch; how many go to theaters, why, and how much are they willing to pay; who buys dvds, why, and how much are they willing to pay, and so on. Doing different things for the sake of doing different things is a bad idea – if you have an engaging story to tell, do it, or else keep quiet.

    But, the fact remains that the very existence of censorship laws is enough to kill the spirit of any man – even if he never intends to make a film or write a book.

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