The bribery scandal shows up India’s censor board for the sham it really is

Who can arbitrate on matters of taste?
Who can arbitrate on matters of taste?
Image: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz
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Nothing makes sense. Rakesh Kumar has been taken into custody for allegedly having taken a bribe in order to pass a film swiftly through the censor certification process. He was the chief executive officer of the Board of Censors, we were told. The Censor Board has a CEO? What does it need a CEO for? Why does he come from the railways? Did he want the job? Did he think he’d get rich asking producers of small films for sums like Rs70,000 (INR seventy thousand only, cash please). There were even middlemen in the deal. Did they get a share of the loot? Or did they get paid independently?

But what has made sense about the Censor Board? How could Sharmila Tagore be chairperson of the board when her son and daughter and daughter-in-law were acting in several of the films that would be presented for scrutiny? Does the term conflict of interest mean nothing? It is no answer to suggest that there might be a conflict of interest when a politician becomes a minister and also heads the richest sports body in the country.

Now Leela Samson is the chairperson of the board. Both Tagore and Samson are probably thinking women. Neither of them seems to be worried by the fact that they are part of an archaic system, set up by the British rulers, to sanitise and secure the liveliest art to which its subject races had taken with such enthusiasm. This is an inverted compliment to the power of cinema. Since its reach is wide and its bars are set so low—you do not need to be literate as you would have to when you read a book, you do not need to be wealthy as you might need to when you go to the theatre in a city—censorship is almost never debated. It is assumed that the State has a duty to keep things clean and remove all traces of anything objectionable. The Supreme Court concurred. The Censor Board’s own site quotes the highest court of the land approvingly:

“Film censorship becomes necessary because a film motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have a strong impact on the minds of the viewers and can affect emotions. Therefore, it has as much potential for evil as it has for good and has an equal potential to instil or cultivate violent or good behaviour. It cannot be equated with other modes of communication. Censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary.”

Only no one is ever sure what is objectionable in the semi darkness. Is a name like Grand Masti objectionable? Is it okay for Salman Khan to make a joke about the size of a little boy’s testicles? Is it okay to stalk a woman as the hero does in Raanjhanaa? If we have a censor board, it seems to exist to keep political films out of the circuit and to deny certification to independent-minded cinema. It seems to exist to let loose the ugliest misogyny, the crudest violence, jokes against people of different sexual orientations, the handicapped… anything goes.

There is something delicious about the idea of a keeper of morality caught with his hand in the till. Nothing we like better. Would we even have noticed had Mr Kumar still been with the railways and was caught accepting a bribe for the painting of a railway station? That he is part of a system that says sanctimoniously that it wants to keep us safe from moral harm makes it all the more delightful. You might have thought that Bollywood would rejoice at this unmasking. There may have been some snickers but they weren’t audible. Because Bollywood has a liking for pragmatic systems that can be skewed to the benefit of those who have the money to so skew it. If there’s a way to get it through and it costs as little as Rs70,000 ($1,166), what’s the harm?

Perhaps it is time to ask some larger questions. Why do we need the censor board? Should people like Ms Tagore and Ms Samson lend their names and their credibility to this board? Or is it better to have people who have some association with art, some sympathies for what is being attempted? If that is so, we’d like to know more about how these things operate. Can we have some transparency? Kobita Sarkar’s You Can’t Please Everyone! Film Censorship: The Inside Story (India Book House) was the last look in we had and that came out in 1982. Now long out of print, its value lay in that Ms Sarkar was on the board of censors and could tell us how it was done and who was doing it. The rest is only a series of disagreements between filmmakers like Ekta Kapoor who think Kya Supercool Hai Hum cannot possibly be meant only for an adult audience because it is full of good clean fun. She speaks from the side of freedom of speech. Yeah. Right.