“That is truly frightening,” Uday Shankar, Chairman and CEO of STAR India, said at FICCI Frames 2017 this morning, pointing to the growing trend of censorship in India, saying that “in 2015-2016, the censor board refused certification to 77 movies. This number was 47 in the previous year and only 23 the year before.” The censorship has been inexplicable, he illustrated, saying that “Even a word like – forgive me for using it – “saali”, has to be silenced in a film. The city names have to be absolutely correct, and contemporary. And of course, do not go anywhere near discussions of women’s issues, let alone female sexuality.”

“As the world gets bolder,” he said “our censoring apparatus seems to be getting more and more conservative.”

But Shankar said that the fault isn’t that of the censor board alone, and pointed towards an increase in vigilantism in Indian society. “In my view the (censor) board generally reflects the collective and dominant consensus of our society. There are increasingly more bodies, mostly self appointed, who have taken upon themselves the task of censoring media content. The refrain seems to be: I don’t like the legend or the myth on which your story is based, so I will burn down your (film/TV) set. I don’t like the character, so I will not let you release your film. If you say you’re going to do a show of busting fake godmen, I’ll take preemptive action.”

Referring to growth of censorship in India as “a somewhat disturbing trend”, Shankar said that it is, “A trend that in the long run is likely to undo a lot of gains that we’ve made. I’m concerned if the indian creative mind is in a position to respond to the pace of technological change with an equally adaptive revolution in its creativity.”

Also Read: I&B Ministry: We are not considering censorship of Hotstar and Netflix

The courts are failing us too

Shankar also delved into the how courts are failing freedom of expression as well. “What is becoming alarming is that some times”, he said, “even the forums that you would seek redressal at, are more inclined to bless the street-side censor than speak for the freedom of expression.”

He gave the example of how the movie Jolly LLB, despite having a censor certificate for universal release, was ordered to be screened before a group of lawyers and medical professions, “who were to decide whether the scenes were appropriate, or whether they insulted any profession or institution.

Another example is more recent, from yesterday. “A case of habeas corpus came up in a court in India yesterday, where the father of a non-adult girl who had eloped with her lover, went to court, seeking directions from the court to the authorities to produce the girl. The girl was produced in the court, and she said that said she eloped with her lover, and this on the basis of an idea she got from watching a Tamil film. Guess what happened? The entire regional censor board has been asked to present themselves before the court. The moot point is not to examine the claim of the girl, but to the moot point is to check why the censor board gave an approval to that film, which encourages young girls to elope and fall in love.”

“There is a long list of instances where the creative community has been bullied into changing its output to suit the needs of someone or the other. It seems that there are always people lurking in the shadows whose sole job is to stretch and explore every piece of content that could be potentially offensive to someone.”

“The openness of the internet was supposed to lead to greater plurality of opinion, and instead it has led to violent polarity. A forced extremism on every matter will make grey the least acceptable colour in all discourse.”

“As a society, we have raised the stakes of every argument to narrowly legal and brutally physical consequences. There seems to be no room left to have civil debates, and no place for those who disagree. Punishment for disagreement seems to have become the norm. The institutions tasked with protecting expression and plurality seem to be seem to be at loggerheads with the objective itself.

On the National Anthem case

“By creating elaborate formal ceremonies around it, are we taking the joy out of one of the most loved and celebrated lyrics in our country, that is our national anthem?”

“What’s frightening is that the court order has become just another weapon in the hands of any goon who is keen to stamp his authority in any theatre in the country. We are rapidly descending into a mindset where the most critical objective of a work of art is to make sure that it offends nobody. No matter how many thematic or creative compromises it has to make…This is the most worrying part.”

This is not new

“Creative minds have become self censoring their thoughts in anticipation, and have started killing ideas before they germinate, so as to avoid any potential trouble. That is truly frightening. The spirit of creativity is to push the boundary, and that seems to be deserting us. The advocates of vandalism claim that unique measures must be taken to protect our unique culture. Let me tell you, there is nothing unique about these methods. We seem to be following what other parts of the world, including Hollywood, have done a hundred years ago. In the early part of the 20th century the hollywood film industry decided to regulate itself. Self regulation. It adopted a production code and insisted on its enforcement for 25 years. The code covered the use of profanities like “Hell” and “Damn”, and any suggestive nudity, wilful offence of any nation, creed, or any ridicule of the clergy, among other things. Doesn’t it sound familiar? The similarity with our own moral code is striking.”

The role of the Internet is to disrupt this censorship

Shankar pointed out that it was television which broke this self-censorship code, and along with European Cinema, challenged and then “buried” this content code. Where can we expect this in India, in this day and age? The Internet, could play this role, according to Shankar: “The question today is will digital play the same role for our generation and our country? The role of a progressive challenger, the role of providing a bigger canvas, and creating a space for defending a point of view. This new medium has the ability to truly democratise broadcast and content creation. It offers the creative community the rare opportunity to rethink from scratch, their art and how it is communicated. Only when modern technology and contemporary creativity truly come together, will we create a compelling and powerful media and entertainment offering that we can call the digital dividend.”

Photo via Star India