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August 18, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Pritish Nandy

Sack Asha Parekh!

Of all the stupid things in the world, the stupidest undoubtedly is the Censor Board. The Censor Board that certifies movies in India.

First of all, it has no business to exist. This kind of censorship has no role to play in an open society. One that swears by democracy. It exists only in totalitarian regimes and Communist countries, both of which have no respect for freedom of expression. India, on the other hand, has a rich and liberal tradition in the arts and in such a talented, knowledge-based society censorship can only diminish the creative experience. Not enhance it in any way.

Everyone knows this. That is why the Emergency remains the ugliest phase in our recent history. Not because of Sanjay Gandhi's excesses. Not because of the way the government enforced family planning. Not because of Turkman Gate. Not even because of Indira Gandhi's systematic demolition of every institution that modern India had built for itself. But simply because the idea of censorship was so ugly and repugnant to our culture that India threw out Indira Gandhi and the Congress to punish them for having imposed it. It was not a vote for the Janata Party. It was a vote against Indira Gandhi. Against censorship.

The Congress has come and gone several times since then. So has the Opposition. But, curiously, neither of them had the wisdom and the courage to chuck out the medieval censorship laws that make a mockery of our freedom of expression. A freedom enshrined in our Constitution. What is worse, each regime has brought in its own Caligula to muzzle creativity and the free flow of news and information.

Asha Parekh is perhaps the worst of them. For she leads a comic brigade of halfwits and wannabes who actually believe that they have the divine right to decide what we free Indians should watch, read, listen to. So you have a Censor Board that intervenes in the stupidest possible manner to cut and chop works of creativity that are well beyond its ability to comprehend. I do not blame her. Idiots are not exactly credited with great artistic understanding. But when stupidity combines with vanity and a shameless hunger for authority and power, it is time for the people of India to say: Enough is enough!

Every fool has an argument for defending his or her foolishness. Parekh has claimed, in a recent interview, that she has done no wrong. It is just that all the male directors are hostile to her. I do not think the argument is sustainable. She has savaged some of the most respected works of cinema in recent months, humiliated their makers, and (when criticised for doing so) come back with a string of stupid and arrogant excuses that do not wash. The truth is that she does not understand cinema and is far too illiterate for the job. But, then, a literate person is unlikely to accept the job of a censor in a democracy that prides itself on its freedom of expression.

Let us look at some of her most recent accomplishments. Parekh must be the first person in the world who actually thinks that dead bodies lying naked in a World War II concentration camp have the potential of sexually arousing Indian audiences. That is why she tried to delete scenes from Steven Spielberg's much acclaimed film on the Holocaust: Schindler's List, one of the finest films ever to come out of Hollywood. When Spielberg refused to allow this, she had no option but to eat crow. She hit back, however, a few months later by trying to chop off scenes from his next film, the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan. A war film this time!

The same thing happened to Shekhar Kapur. The censors found sexually titillating the two most powerful sequences in Bandit Queen. One, where a stark naked Dalit woman is cruelly paraded before the whole village, to forcefully atone for her crimes. The other, where she is repeatedly raped by a gang of upper castes. They wanted both sequences chopped off. After much protest, the film was finally passed with an A certificate. But Parekh is not one to give up. She has now asked for the word "quinny" to be removed from a scene in Elizabeth and also insisted that a brief love making sequence and a war scene showing a decapitated head be chopped off the final version for theatrical release. Both are intrinsic to the film and are infinitely milder than the sex and violence scenes you see in any Hindi movie today. As for "quinny" I did not even know what the word meant till the Censors made such a brouhaha about it. I would not have even noticed the reference to it since it was spoken in French.

Mahesh Bhatt has also had problems with the censors over Zakhm. A film which finally won Ajay Devgun the best actor award in the National Film Awards instituted by the same ministry to which the Censor Board reports. Parekh insisted cutting out scenes from the film that she felt could "hurt communal sentiments". Ironically, Zakhm went on to win the award for the Best Film Promoting National Integration! She has done the same to Tanuja Chandra's Sangharsh now. What is amusing is the fact that both Zakhm and Sangharsh have been given A certificates! Which means that the Censor Board is not just deciding which films the family can watch and which only adults should see. It is also trying to determine what adult audiences can see and what they cannot.

In other words, the Censor Board has now taken upon itself the responsibility of protecting the sensibilities of adult viewers. By reducing a fight sequence by 5 seconds or, as in Zakhm, by digitally recolouring the head bands of goons. A sequence showing what appears to be a Hindu policeman looking away from an attack on a Muslim young man was taken out simply because Parekh felt that it was much too much for the adult Indian to handle. Just like the reference to the "quinny" which (if it means what I think it means) would have gone well over the head of the average Indian adult viewer since less than one in a million among them are likely to comprehend medieval French.

It is not sex that is the issue here. It is not violence. It is power play. Naked power play that must be stopped. Parekh, incandescent as she may be in her stupidity, must be persuaded to step down from an office she has no business to occupy in the first place. For she does not understand cinema and her tastes are not exactly contemporary.

During the past few months of her tenure she has done her damnedest to put the clock back on Indian cinema and, as the rest of India matures and globalises, showbiz has gone through a serious trauma because of the way she runs the Censor Board.

As India hurtles towards its destiny, as a knowledge and entertainment economy in the new millennium, we must change the keepers of our morality, we must integrate with the rest of the world. We cannot afford to have an Asha Parekh who embarrasses us with her spastic response to intelligent cinema. If she refuses to budge, we must throw her out because it is not just film makers who are facing the brunt of her authoritarian ways. India is also becoming a laughing stock.

Our film makers are clever and talented people. Our audiences are mature enough to know what they should watch, what they should not. We must leave it to them. Market forces will determine the rest.

Pritish Nandy

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