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August 24, 1999


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Vir Sanghvi

Asha Parekh Say this for Asha Parekh: she knows how to remain in the public eye. Way back in the sixties, when Ashaji was the heart-throb of the nation, we imagined that she would find some rich, mill-owning Gujju type, marry him and then settle down to happy and contented retirement in a large bungalow in the Juhu-Vile Parle scheme area of Bombay. Occasionally, we thought, she would make public appearances: a nice, middle-aged Gujarati lady who appeared on stage at the Filmfare awards function to present the lifetime achievement award to Nasir Husain or Joy Mukherjee. Apart from that, we imagined, no more would be heard of her.

How wrong we were!

Ashaji has stubbornly refused to fade away. Switch on your television set and there she is, sweet smile and homely bottom still intact, plugging away for some execrable 'comedy' serial that she has produced for Star TV. Open your newspaper and there she is again, sounding suitably agitated about all the film-makers who incline to the entirely absurd view that India's censors are content to let all kinds of vulgar rubbish produced by Bollywood find a happy release, while any film with some redeeming artistic content -- say Elizabeth or Such A Long Journey -- is subjected to hamfisted scissoring. Nonsense, says Ashaji, stubborn manner still intact but sweet smile now temporarily on hold, the censors are only doing their job.

And what a job it is!

It is almost a golden rule at the information and broadcasting ministry that any knowledge of cinema disqualifies you from a position on the Censor Board. Politicians and babus treat it as a means of dispensing patronage and doing favours to friends. During the Emergency, at least one girlfriend of the then notoriously virile V C Shukla found her way on to the board. Mindful, perhaps, that she had made it to the job on her back, she spent the rest of her time on her feet, protesting vociferously about such threats to the moral order as Shyam Benegal's Bhumika.

Shukla's successors may not have had his way with women (not even a certain Calcutta-based barrister made the grade), but they recognised the principle of patronage as being the foundation of the Censor Board. Ten years ago, I was amused to note that several Bombay socialities, who were friends of an influential film personality perceived to be close to the centre of power, were at once appointed to the board. In the following decade, instances of unsuitable appointments abounded.

It is not my place to question Ashaji's qualifications for the job. We know that she acted in Kati Patang and other musical hits of a bygone era. We know that she does Gujarati dance dramas. And, sadly, we have also been made aware of her artistic sensibility as demonstrated by the serials she produces. Perhaps this gives her the right to decide why films that are regarded as artistic successes all over the world should be re-edited by her and by her friends on the board.

Or perhaps it doesn't.

There is a longstanding debate on the need for film censorship. Most Western countries seem to have come to the conclusion that censorship is required to protect the young and to prevent particularly repugnant practices from being portrayed on screen. In the United States, there is no censorship but the film industry has set up a board that provides guidelines: Is the film suitable for young people, is it explicit in nature, and so on. In the United Kingdom, certain kinds of movies would be banned outright (films that encourage racial hatred or snuff movies for example), but the censors usually decide that almost anything can be exhibited as long as children are prevented from seeing it.

This is not a consensus that we accept in India. Our view seems to be that, as a large chunk of our population is illiterate, we need more stringent guidelines. How strict the censors need to be depends on the mood of the times. In the sixties, we went to the absurd length of setting up a commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge to decide whether kissing should be allowed in Hindi movies. (Yeah, okay, but not too much, seemed to be his lordship's conclusion).

It is possible to attack the Indian consensus on grounds of logical inconsistency. For instance, we argue that illiterate people need to be protected from naked actresses and overenthusiastic stuntmen. And yet, the basis of our democracy is that an illiterate person is as qualified to make a political decision as one who is highly educated. How does it make sense to argue that an illiterate person can decide who will be the next prime minister of India but has no right to gaze deeply at Sushmita Sen's navel?

Though my instinct is to support the less is more view of censorship for the kind of reason given above, we must accept that most ordinary people in this country believe that some kind of censorship is necessary. Regrettably, most middle class people also believe that while they can watch anything and everything with no ill-effects, the unwashed masses must never be allowed near an exposed breast. I don't agree with any of this but, equally, I accept that the Censor Board has a moral licence to operate from the community.

That leaves two issues. One: What does the community expect the censors to do? And two: Is the board effectively implementing society's moral consensus?

Of the two big questions, it is the first that is the hardest to answer. Where does society really draw the line? The situation is complicated by the fact that many aggressively vocal minorities demand all kinds of bans -- and yet, there is no evidence that they represent the mainstream of society. For instance, the Shiv Sena wanted Fire banned. But there is nothing to suggest that most of us agreed with Bal Thackeray on this issue.

Ashaji, when she is asked questions about society's moral consensus, sidesteps them neatly by pointing to the Censor Board's catch-all guidelines. Anybody who has read these will tell you that they are framed so loosely that everything rests on the interpretationn of the individual censors. It is entirely up to the discretion of the board of decide that the bloodbath at the end of Anjaam is fine but a beheading in Elizabeth is unacceptable. The guidelines actually provide no moral compass; they remain a flag of convenience for the board and its arbitrary judgements.

But the question is an important one: where does society draw the line? After four years of conducting TV programmes with live audiences, I have come to the conclusion that there is considerable disquiet within the Indian middle class about vulgarity in cinema. The problem is not with art cinema which reaches a restricted audience. Most people are happy to let Bandit Queen be passed; most have no objection to Fire either. The problem is with commercial cinema. They object to the toilet humour in Biwi No1. They are appalled by Govinda's pelvic thrusts. They are concerned about suggestive song lyrics. And an increasing number of women complain about the manner in which girls are portrayed in Hindi movies.

I find this significant because these are not the areas that concern Ashaji too much. She is more worried about Mahesh Bhatt's Zakhm because it has a reference to Hindu-Muslim tensions (though even Ashaji will concede that the film is not inflammatory). She wants cuts in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth even if they destroy the continuity of the film only because she finds blood less acceptable in English movies than in Bollywood's bloodbaths. And, most recently, she wanted to mutilate Such A Long Journey, widely regarded as one of the most sensitive films made about India in years.

All this leads me to conclude that while it may be hard to find a moral consensus within Indian society, the search for such a consensus is of no interest to Ashaji. In the finest traditions of the Bollywood environment where she has flourished, she is content to let her film producer pals push back the frontiers of taste with their vulgar commercial movies. But let an art film director expose a nipple or spill a drop of blood and, hey, he will have Ashaji and her scissors to contend with.

The second question about whether the board is accurately implementing society's moral consensus does not arise; Ashaji and her pals don't even care what this consensus is.

It does not occur to them that in an era where cable operators show uncensored movies every night and where anyone with access to a video recorder can watch all the hardcore porn he likes, there is a need to throw away the guidelines that they keep quoting like a sacred mantra and to evolve a new code that reflects the spirit of the times. Nor do they recognise that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with nudity; it is the use of nudity for titillation that should cause concern. Similarly, an accurate representation of a historical event (the few seconds of violence in Elizabeth) must, by necessity, be treated with a respect not due to the blood and gore of Hollywood.

But should any of this surprise us? Should we expect any better of Asha Parekh? Do we have a right to expect anything more of a board that is chosen on the basis of patronage?

Yes, of course we need to rewrite the guidelines. And yes, we need to find the moral consensus within our society. But all this comes later. The first step towards more effective and rational censorship is much easier. You need to sack this board and give Ashaji more time to make the serials she loves. You need, in fact, to change the method of appointing members to the Censor Board.

Even if you don't have proper guidelines, most people with common sense can see that what the censors are doing is usually wrong and, often, plain silly. The point is that the censors themselves don't see what everybody else does. That leads to one obvious conclusion: appoint people to the board for the wrong reasons and you end up with the wrong kind of people. Alas, as long as the board remains the information and broadcasting ministry's way of dispensing patronage, nothing is going to change.

Hence this simple prescription: appoint a statutory board comprising people of eminence and half the problems will disappear. It may not solve everything but it will, at least, be a good beginning.

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