‘Censorship in India is Based on the Paternalistic Idea that Citizens are Not Mature’

The Modi government has announced the formation of a panel headed by Shyam Benegal to review the functioning of the Central Board of Film Certification, including by looking at the film certification models followed by other countries like the United States.

William Mazzarella, Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, writes and teaches on the political anthropology of mass publicity, with special reference to India. His books include Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India and Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity. He is also the co-editor, with Raminder Kaur, of Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction. In Mumbai recently, Mazzarella spoke to The Wire about the historic context of censorship in India and how that links up with efforts by the state to censor cinema in recent years.

You have studied and written on the history of cinema censorship in India. What are its origins?

Cinema emerges in the 1890s and comes immediately to Bombay and it is at a time when there was already some regulation of dramatic performances. You have the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876. Around that time, India also got press controls. The British administration’s anxieties about cinema was that it combined elements of theatre and also the press. It was mass produced, like the press and it embodied a performative quality of theatre. What happens then is that the colonial government tries to figure out whether it needs new kinds of regulation or whether the Act would be sufficient. Around the First World War, they decide that cinema would need its own laws.

Was the government worried about cinema sending out messages of freedom and independence or more concerned about moralistic matters?

It was a mixture of things. In the 19th century, there was all this worry about the press, especially in the Indian languages. There was a lot of paranoia about what kind of seditious messages might be circulated in the Indian language press. Cinema brought hyper modern technology at the time, a gesturality and that was what made them so worried, because the colonial authorities saw Indians as a gestural people and felt that they would be particularly vulnerable to a medium such as cinema.

In some ways these anxieties were not limited to India; you had similar worries in the United States at the same time about what cinema would do to the working classes. In the colonial context, what was added to the anxieties was racial differences and the manageability of the subject population.

William Mazzarella. Credit: University of Chicago

William Mazzarella. Credit: University of Chicago

In the early days of cinema, Indian film makers were producing either mythologicals or films on reformist subjects; that couldn’t have worried the authorities, or did it?

The British had already been worried about mythological subjects. They felt these themes were being used as covers; there was a perpetual paranoia that under the cover of religion, political messages were being imparted. In the colonial files of the period, you read about some officer thinking, there is something fishy about this film and we should get our Oriental Translator (OT) — which was a designation by the way, at least in the Bombay Presidency — to explain to the officials what was going on and evaluate whether there was a hidden seditious message in the film.

Eventually you get a much more elaborate censoring set up with a representation of communities – one Parsi, one Muslim, one or two Hindus. They would be, usually, men of leisure who did not necessarily know much about cinema, but were there to ensure no one would be offended. By the 1930s, representatives from professional film bodies, citizens groups and other moral watchdogs were brought in. That happened at the same time as the first steps towards Indian self-government, with the Government of India Act of 1935.

You have also looked at the 1990s in your work.

What my book has done is to juxtapose two moments – the 1910s and 1920s and then the 1990s, the post liberalisation phase. That is when you are getting into cultural wars between the liberals and the conservatives. Remember this is the time when there are controversies about ‘Choli ke peeche’ and Fire and so many more instances.

Have you linked these developments with the economic liberalisation of 1991?

Let’s say that liberalisation provides an opportunity for mobilisation around questions of sexual morality, foreign influence and so on, so that becomes a context for the 1990s for a renewed conservatism. In the public cultural environment, there are these new foreign television programmes, new ads, new fashions which create mobilisation around the idea of tradition. Soon those in the business decided that there was only a small audience for English language soaps and you saw the subsequent rise of Hindi language serials. This is part of my book on advertising, on how liberalisation provided the opportunity for a new invention of Indianness.

We are now in a situation where the censors are trying to beep out things and a certain kind of ultra-conservativeness is being imposed. But is that really possible in this day and age, especially with technology that can make censorship redundant? 

Well, the first thing to know is that the censors are not being able to control the public cultural and media space. It is also obvious that the censors know that. So the question is, why do they persist with their censorius ways. Although they do cut this or that, my argument is that censorship is a kind of performative art, an assertion of authority and in a way, censorship depends on the publicity value of the thing being censored. We know that every time something is taken out of a film, it is endlessly repeated in the media – it is not as if it cannot be talked about. In a way, censorship is capitalising on the controversy; authority thrives on attention, and it gets attention. In this public culture of everything that is being circulated, the media, advertising, the political discourse, censorship should be seen as one player of many. One of the things about censorship to also know is that it is unpredictable and arbitrary, despite all the rules they publicise.

Many here are saying we should follow the US model, an industry body that self-regulates, rather than a government-appointed set up.

The US has a ratings authority. There is an interesting documentary called This Film Is Not Yet Rated and it is worth knowing about here. I hear people here say, we want ratings, we don’t want our films to be cut, but in fact, what this documentary shows is that this authority is a very shadowy agency. No one knows who these people are, watching these films, rating them. It is a secret. Yes, they give you ratings but they also say things like if you want this rating, you must cut out this. The way it plays out is not very consistent or debatable. It is a lot more arbitrary and shadowy than people imagine.

There is a tendency to idealise institutions in Europe and the United States. The big difference, if you want to compare India with say, the United States is that the perception of the relationship between the state  and the citizen is still premised on the paternalistic, developmental idea; this perception exists that the majority of Indians are immature citizens, they are not quite ready for democracy. Even though there is pride in calling India the largest democracy, many people will also quickly say, those who are illiterate are not mature enough to be full citizens and this enables a very paternalistic, censorious authority in a way that may not be possible in Western Europe.

Featured image credit: Meena Kadri/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.