[Reader-list] India: Censorship and Misplaced Priorities (Pankaj Butalia)

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Sat Aug 23 05:53:43 IST 2003

The Times of India
AUGUST 23, 2003

Hocus Focus: Censorship and Misplaced Priorities

This may be an imaginary sequence or it may be true but a rather 
strange thing supposedly happened last year. A review committee of 
the Mumbai documentary festival met to discuss routine affairs. 
During the course of this, a senior bureaucrat revealed that some 
women's groups had complained of the increasing trend towards 
obscenity in the media and the urgent need to do something about it. 
It was thus decided that, in future, documentaries submitted for the 
festival would have to possess censor certificates.
Much like the famed sleight of hand, one hand did the distracting 
while the other did the trick. Nobody bothered to ask whether the 
so-called complaint made any reference to any film screened at the 
Mumbai festival or what censoring a documentary could do to remove 
obscenity in the media or in people's minds. A problem was pointed 
out and some action had to be taken. End of matter.
For almost a century, there has been a phobia about what is loosely 
termed the mass media. It is almost as if cinema, and by extension 
television, video and now the Internet, are objects of fear and 
hatred, which are experienced as dangerous and malevolent and, 
there-fore, necessary to put away. Society's inability to understand 
why violence takes place or what underlies the bestiality in man 
makes it imperative to have a scapegoat. What better scapegoat than 
the mirror, the medium?
Ironically, even the most scissor-happy activist is completely 
ignorant about the way in which cinema works or impacts the human 
psyche. Is the content the medium or the message? Is there a 
seditious possibility in cinema (et al) and if so, does it lie in the 
overt text or in some subliminal space? In the absence of any clarity 
on this, who can possibly know what to censor and what to let be?
Does the evidence of censorship over the last century make us any 
wiser? How many examples are there of films and videos which have 
inflamed passions or led to outbreaks of anarchic violence? What 
possible harm could films like The Last Temptation of Christ, Hair, 
The Tin Drum, Gone With the Wind, Birth of a Nation, Clockwork 
Orange, Pink Flamingos, Midnight Cowboy, The Exorcist or Woodstock do 
to society?
In any case, if one looks over time, one finds today's banned films 
become tomorrow's mainstream ones. Violence does not originate in 
cinema. Most incidents of mass violence, of oppression against weaker 
sections of society, of annihilation of different tribes and 
communities have either been done directly by the state (Soviet Union 
in the '30s, Nazi Germany, China during the Cultural Revolution, Idi 
Amin's Uganda, Chile, Argentina, Pol Pot's Cambodia, the list is 
endless) or by powerful sections of society with active support or 
connivance of the state. This does not include the millions of 
pointless deaths that have been caused throughout the century by 
legitimised violence called war. Nor are rape, moles-tation, 
attitudes towards women a product of the media.
That would allow patriarchy to escape responsibility for all its 
ills. Interestingly, none of those who constantly point fingers at 
the media for society's ills, ever speak out strongly enough against 
those very ills. No proponent of censorship openly acknowledges that 
there are problems in our society which need to be addressed. There 
is no criticism of the regularity with which rapes occur, no 
criticism of the lynchings of couples that seek to marry against the 
wishes of the village, of oppressions against Dalits, of sati, dowry 
deaths or female infanticide.
Neither is there criticism of the systematic harassment of women in 
schools, colleges, work places. The list is endless. Yet it is 
believed that the mere screening of a film or television programme 
has the potential to send society hurtling down a moral abyss. Does 
that imply that a society must not have any control over the images, 
ideas and messages that circulate in its midst? Ideas which could, at 
some stage, interact with the violence present in our own personas 
and exacerbate inherent tendencies? Not at all. Nor is it suggested 
that gratuitous violence, child pornography, secessionist 
provocations, terrorist ideology or certain kinds of hate speeches 
need to be tolerated, though it must be pointed out that a society 
which encourages violence in the form of war, oppression of women in 
the form of patriarchy, child abuse and familial sexual abuse, state 
terrorism and violence against its weaker sections can hardly pretend 
that the mere use of a censor's scissors will promote harmonious 
This is not the place to detail how this can be done but there are 
countless examples of other societies where such controls have been 
implemented reasonably successfully. The use of a society's criminal 
laws against any such act ought to be enough where there is a genuine 
desire to curb anti-social activities and where there is a consensus 
on what constitutes such an activity. The censor's scissors are not 
necessary for this purpose. After all, censorship is strict in India 
but no one could succeed in stopping the circulation of the VHP's 
hate tapes.
Strangely, this has not been considered secessionist, seditious, 
inflammatory or provocative. However, a documentary reporting this 
could be considered secessionist and would be censored. Strange logic 
this and a strange sleight of hand.
(The author is a Delhi-based film-maker)

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