The most unkind cut of all (14 July 2018)

(My column in Mint Lounge, July 14 2018)

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In June 1954, Jawaharlal Nehru received an unusual petition signed by 13,000 housewives in Delhi warning him of a creeping public calamity. There was, the aggrieved ladies argued, a grave threat to the “moral health of the country”, one that had become a “major factor in incitement to crime and general unsettlement of society”. The children of India, they explained, were finding themselves susceptible to all kinds of absurd notions, not least of which was the kind of sexual awakening that still makes many an Indian mother restless. Something had to be done to curb such naked evil, and the prime minister was the only man who could assuage their fears. It was to him, then, that they looked to rein in the medium responsible for this imminent disaster, and he would, they hoped, be the voice of moral correctness in this age of immorality. As for the enemy medium—it was that odious, dangerous thing shrouded in an innocent name: cinema.

Cinema, like most new things in a society suspicious of all new things, had had a long, troubled existence in this land where piety often cloaks hypocrisy. It was in July 1896 that the Lumiere Brothers first brought this “miracle of the century” to Mumbai, introducing to Indian audiences the motion picture. Feature films arrived soon after, with Raja Harishchandra (1913) marking the birth of our film industry. By the time the 13,000 Delhi housewives knocked on Nehru’s door, India was already the second largest global producer of films, making two-thirds the number of movies as the US, twice as many as Japan and five times more than Italy—Britain had been left far behind as early as 1925. By then, India had over 2,000 screens, selling 250 million tickets annually, and while Mahatma Gandhi in his lifetime bothered to watch only one film, Nehru was a little more encouraging about cinema and its place in modern India.

This was not, however, a free pass for film-makers to do as they pleased. Like the bureaucracy, the English language, cricket and tea, independent India also inherited from the British a great fondness for censorship—the only difference being that the latter were more honest about why they imposed it. Before laws were passed in 1918 and 1920, establishing regional censor boards, films fell under the purview of a variety of rules. When electric lights were used for projection, for instance, the state insisted on the right to regulate the business under the Indian Electricity Act of 1910. But once the censor boards were constituted, the process of preserving imperial interests became a little more streamlined. Anything that came out of America, talking such subversion as democracy, was suspect; everything that came from the Soviet Union, talking communism, was banned; and the faintest whiff of nationalist sentiment provoked earthquakes of governmental horror.

Of course, this did not stop Indians from trying. The 1921 film Bhakta Vidurtried to pass itself off as an innocent story about a character from the Mahabharat. It did not take censors long to notice the resemblance to a certain South Africa-returned Indian: He wore the Gandhi cap, had a charkha, and told peasants they needn’t feel awkward about denying taxes to the state. Understandably, Bhakta Vidur was banned. Then there was another British preoccupation in preventing the screening of Western films in India which might, as the chairman of a 1927 committee noted, “lower the prestige of the Westerner in the East”. After all, how could the white man civilize the barbaric Asiatic, if the Asiatic saw on the movie screen that whites were also mere mortals?

With independence in 1947, however, Indians now ruled over Indians—and having acquired power, giving up its instruments was not a particularly appealing proposition. Speeches were delivered on free expression and assorted principles, but the appetite to censor grew. In the five years before 1948, censors in Mumbai had ordered cuts in a total of 705 films; now, in the first half of 1949 alone, they demanded changes in 242 cases. The Bengal authorities were proudly puritanical, rejecting films as “repulsive” or “distasteful”—a more moralistic tone compared to 1931, when the British banned a film calling it, more bluntly, “stupid”. The government of independent India also decided to create a central board of censors, and by 1960 there were more rules to guide Indian cinema away from touchy areas.

“No picture shall be certified for public exhibition,” the information and broadcasting ministry commanded that year, “which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Films that lowered “the sacredness of the institution of marriage” were disallowed, and characters with “indecorous or sensuous posture” could also invite a ban. In keeping with the sarkari love for detail, anything affecting “the confidence of a child in its parents” was also liable for censorship. Then there was a whole category of films whose fate was decided on the basis of agitation. The Loves Of Carmen (1948), for instance, was banned because its star, Rita Hayworth, had married the son of the Aga Khan—some self-consciously pious characters thundered that the daughter-in-law of a Muslim grandee could never be allowed to entertain hordes of strange people in the audience.

Squashed between bureaucratic pomposity and public melodrama, meanwhile, cinema itself suffered. As the film historian Theodore Bhaskaran writes, “hemmed in on all sides by sensitive areas of endless variety”, cinema often got stuck in a time warp. And since anything interesting brought down the wrath, either of the state or howling mobs or both, many film-makers fell back on a song-and-dance formula that upset nobody—a tradition still in vogue, depicting not so much reality as much as an “escape” from it, helping also its producers to minimize the snipping of the self-righteous censor.

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