Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Thoughts for audiences of all ages”

Posted on March 30, 2012


Does censorship make much sense in the movies, when “objectionable content” comes at us from so many different directions?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Agneepath and the horrific killing it supposedly inspired, and how movies with violent content aren’t responsible for the violent acts of individuals. After all, not everyone who saw Agneepath ended up on the front pages of newspapers after committing copycat crimes. This week, we get the news that Bittoo Boss, a forthcoming comedy about a man who records wedding videos, has been awarded a Parental Guidance (PG) rating, the country’s first. The news item in Mumbai Mirror reports a “source” – don’t you always wonder who these shadowy people amidst the arc lights are, whispering secrets into the ears of the press as if they were deep throats destined to bring down governments? – as saying, “Parental Guidance can only be recommended in India since we don’t have it here. For the first time, an announcement on behalf of the censor board will be carried on hoardings saying for Bittoo Boss, it is recommended that children under 15 be accompanied by a parent.”

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Apparently, the censor board has even instructed the filmmakers about the size of the letters to be used for the announcement. (What? No guidelines on the fonts? May I suggest Goudy Stout or Wide Latin?) What I am waiting to see – and what a television news channel should investigate, stationing videographers at the ticket counters of various theatres for a sting operation – is how many parents actually follow this instruction, never mind that the parental-guidance suggestion might be in flashing neon lights the size of a movie screen. We are a nation that regularly dismisses Do Not Spit signs, Use Pedestrian Crossing signs, Please Do Not Pluck Flowers signs, Do Not Urinate Here signs, Please Stand in Line signs, Only One Person In Front Of The Red Line signs, Please Silence Your Mobile Phone signs, and even Hospital Zone Please Keep Quiet signs. And we are just going to submit meekly to a sign that asks us to ensure that children do not end up consuming inappropriate content all by themselves?

I watched The Hunger Games, last week, for a review in this paper, and I was shocked to see a truckload of school kids around me. They were accompanied by a teacher, who looked extremely harried right about interval time, taking down with a pad and pencil various snack orders from children who kept changing their minds every minute. But he didn’t seem the least bit flustered that his wards, so far, had witnessed children not much older than them kill one another in the most brutal of ways – slicing throats as blood spurted out, for instance, scornfully mimicking the victim’s piteous pleas. Yes, a lot of this violence was obscured with fast-moving hand-held cameras that didn’t linger on the gore, but the implications of these acts were unmistakable. I think we’re just inured to violence on screen from a very young age, and it doesn’t occur to us that children could absorb these scenes and end up more than a little jaded.

I offer myself as an example. After a childhood and a misbegotten youth filled with no censorship whatsoever, there is very little on screen (in terms of violence) that can shock me anymore. One of the few scenes that provoked me to literally flinch appeared in Tony Kaye’s American History X, where Edward Norton brings his heel down on the head of a man for a “curb stomping,” thus smashing his jaw with a gut-sickening crunch. It takes that kind of barbarity to make me react, thanks to a zero-censorship policy earlier. (Oh, films could be rated “A,” Adults Only, but no one really enforced it, certainly not the tired men at the ticket counters who, as long as we proffered the right amounts of money, wouldn’t even look up to see who we were.) Ratings have always existed in India, long before this supposedly “historic” Parental Guidance recommendation. It’s just that no one cared. It was just a sign like all the other signs we never gave much thought to.

But the rating guideline of Bittoo Boss is supposedly for sexual/vulgar content, not violence, and that has always been a bit more problematic. We don’t think twice before seating children in front of a screen where things blow up, but we squirm when something sexual happens. The K Bhagyaraj movie Dhavani Kanavugal illustrated this hypocrisy, very amusingly, when the hero took his five younger sisters to a movie, and whenever the screen threatened to heat up with lovemaking, he’d throw down change and ask his siblings to search for the coins on the floor. But that was a time before 24-hour television, when we didn’t have near-naked people parading around our living rooms on Fashion TV. If the purpose of censorship is to keep young and impressionable minds from being warped, how can someone justify a parental-guidance rating for a film that merely has a few lines of objectionable dialogue, when far more explicit content is freely available on TV, on the Internet, on mobile phones? It’s a whole new world, and it may need a few wholly new rules.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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