The limits of decency and the decency of limits: Censorship and the Bombay film industry

Tejaswini Ganti

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    In July 2002, veteran Hindi filmmaker Vijay Anand abruptly resigned as chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification-more commonly known as the Censor Board-even before completing his first year of a three-year term. His resignation provided the basis for a cover story about film censorship in the national English-language newsmagazine India Today titled "Is Sex Ok?" with the subtitle "Indian Cinema Tries to Break Free from the Clutches of Prudish and Archaic Censorship but the Government Dithers." Though filmmaking in India is a private enterprise, in order to have a theatrical release, films have to be cleared and rated by the state's Central Board of Film Certification-a practice initiated by the British in 1918 to protect the image of the colonizer. Perceived threats to the reputation of white women as well as any allusion to self-governance, the Indian nationalist movement, or Indian independence were heavily censored by the colonial authorities. Anand had made news earlier because he was considering a recommendation from the regional censor board in Kerala that "sexually explicit films" be legally exhibited in specially designated theaters with a rating of X-A or M/A (for "matured adults"). Kerala is regarded as the center of the adult film industry in India, and while such films are either prohibited or censored heavily, they continue to be exhibited clandestinely throughout the country with the censored portions added back in. In an interview with the English-language newspaper The Indian Express, Anand explained, "The committee thought it wasn't possible to stamp out the sex film trade. The better option is to regulate it, like they do in other countries: set up special halls, levy 2-3 times the regular entertainment duty" (Nair 2002). Anand presented his position as a pragmatic one, making arguments similar to those for decriminalizing other socially taboo or morally suspect activities like drug use or prostitution: such films exist because there is a market for them, and the state may as well earn revenues from them rather than expend resources trying to police and prohibit them. Individual states in India earn a significant amount of revenue from the entertainment tax imposed upon cinemagoing. This issue was merely one aspect of a general overhaul of the censorship process that Anand was attempting during his tenure as chair.1 During his review of the censorship process, Anand received sixty recommendations that were to be placed in a report to a core committee of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, under whose purview the Censor Board operates. 2 However, to officials in the Ministry the suggestion of screening X-rated adult films in specially designated theaters overshadowed all of the other recommendations and Anand was ordered to not even raise the issue at an upcoming committee meeting. Anand's response was to resign immediately. In an interview with India Today, he stated, "I wasn't being allowed to do my job." He characterized the order from Delhi as "taking away my freedom of speech" (Bamzai and Unnithan 2002, 46). In other words, the censor was himself censored. Though Anand's resignation and the adult film proposal received a good deal of coverage in the Indian press, little outrage or even concern was reported on the part of the Bombay film industry. As someone who has been researching the Hindi film industry for over a decade, I was not surprised. While the popular press in India represents film censorship as a state-imposed regulation that is anathema to filmmakers-as evident in the subtitle of the abovementioned India Today article-I discovered during the course of my initial fieldwork among Hindi filmmakers (in 1996) a great deal of ambivalence toward the Indian state's policies and practices of film censorship. In my interviews with filmmakers, discussions about censorship were rarely articulated in a language of rights or artistic or creative freedom, but rather in a language of cinematic power, social responsibility, and self-control. While most filmmakers had problems with the implementation of censorship policies, many actually agreed with the idea of censorship and expressed anxiety about a culture free of state censorship. These anxieties were articulated primarily through the tropes of the audience, the market, and opportunistic peers. In this chapter, I examine these concerns as a way of broadening the discussion of film censorship beyond issues of content, policy, and regulation to incorporate issues of citizenship, subjectivity, and social relations. I detail the varied perspectives held by Hindi filmmakers on the practice, rationale, and efficacy of film censorship. While some filmmakers clearly endorsed the idea of state censorship, many were ambivalent about the whole issue. Even those who disagreed with the practice of state censorship did so on the basis of its redundancy rather than its iniquity. Rather than a textual (specific films) or regulatory (state legislation) perspective on film censorship, I approach the issue ethnographically, focusing on Hindi filmmakers' ambivalent attitudes toward censorship. I argue that this ambivalence arises from two distinct but related features of the historical context and social world of the contemporary Bombay film industry. First is theideology of developmentalism that both informs state policy and shapes subjectivities in postcolonial India. India's particular relationship to modernity has been defined primarily by the apparatus and discourse of development which positions "Third World" nation-states like India as "behind" the West, and therefore "inhabiting a period that lay in the dim recesses of the history of the 'developed' world" (Gupta 1998, 10). Though the Indian state since the mid-1980s has replaced a Nehruvian-style development agenda with a neoliberal one, it has not abandoned its obsession with "catching up" with the West. While the methods may have changed, a teleological ideology of modernization still undergirds state economic and social policy. Development discourse is not just about the economic position of a nation-state relative to others, but more significantly "has created the 'underdeveloped' as a subject and 'under development' as a form of identity in the postcolonial world" (Gupta 1998, 11). I have discussed elsewhere how this identity of underdevelopment is manifest in the film industry both in its self-representation and in its representation of its audiences (Ganti 2000). Here, I examine how the sense of "backwardness" and incomplete subject formation implicit in the label "developing country" is internalized and articulated by Hindi filmmakers in their discussions of audiences and the need for censorship. The second factor necessary to contextualize filmmakers' ambivalence about censorship is the Bombay film industry's desire for respectability and acceptance within Indian middle-class and elite social spheres. The film industry has long been viewed by elites and represented by the media as an unsavory and illicit site because of its historical connections to courtesan culture, the "black" or undocumented economy, money laundering, organized crime, and stereotypes about the "casting couch." Since the 1930s it has been possible to discern Bombay filmmakers' concerns about such characterizations and efforts to counter them,3 and from the mid-1990s the self-representations of the film industry have been marked by a narrative of increasing respectability accruing to the profession (Ganti 2000). In this narrative, filmmakers assert that the Bombay film industry is becoming respectable because of the middle- To upper-class backgrounds of new entrants; filmmakers also make distinctions between legitimate, committed filmmakers who make films for the sake of storytelling and entertainment and those who make films for reasons that are morally suspect. Here, I reveal how such concerns about respectability and legitimacy manifest themselves in discussions of censorship through the figure of the errant filmmaker who is unable or unwilling to control the desire to cater to audiences' prurient instincts for commercial gain. The inability of the industry to regulate and discipline itself is offered as another rationale for censorship; therefore the discussion about censorship also serves as a commentary on the identity of the Bombay film industry and the subjectivities of its members.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationCensorship in South Asia
    Subtitle of host publicationCultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction
    PublisherIndiana University Press
    Number of pages36
    ISBN (Print)9780253353351
    StatePublished - 2009

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Social Sciences


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