Obscenity in Indian Film

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Cultural Emergency?
In the latter half of the 1990s, censorship became an obsessive topic in the Indian media. For about five years, it seemed that one could not turn around without coming across yet another story about a magazine editor being harassed or even beaten by right wing goons, about cinemas showing the films of Deepa Mehta or Mira Nair being trashed, about Bollywood starlets or saucy models being summoned to court for obscenity or indecency, about offending books, paintings and articles being slashed and burned amid saffron flags and TV cameras. Hindi film director Mahesh Bhatt, always ready with a sound bite, went so far as to call it a “cultural emergency” (Bhatt 1998).1 The implication was that various forces were now imposing, in the cultural domain, the kind of political repression for which Indira Gandhi became infamous in the mid-1970s. Censorship was in the courts and in the streets. The very idea of censorship as an exclusive prerogative of the state was being called into question, as all manner of activists and enthusiasts – with more or less tenuous connections to official powers – appeared ready to capitalize on the spectacular possibilities of the 24-hour news cycle that cable television had recently brought to India. At the time, I was watching out of the corner of my eye – most of my attention was focused on the advertising business, about which I was writing a book. To be sure, 1 Derek Bose notes that Bhatt provoked protests with his statements in support of pornography at a time when he was on the governing council of the Government-owned Film and Television Institute of India in Pune: “In a memorandum to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, prominent women’s organizations in the country demanded Bhatt’s removal on the grounds that no Indian citizen and particularly one holding a government office can affirm the right to watch pornography” (2005: 150). 2

advertising had enjoyed its share of controversies during this period – Tuffs Shoes and KamaSutra condoms to name but two – but there was something about the formulaic, even ritualistic quality of so many of the censorship controversies of that time that turned me off. In a strange way, all this frenzied visibility seemed to make the cultural politics of censorship less rather than more intelligible. Each episode seemed both staged and subsequently interpreted according to a well-worn script: the drama of cultural globalization, the overdetermined clash between cosmopolitans and traditionalists, between liberals and reactionaries, iconically fungible and ready-made for nightly summary on CNN. A hardened and generic “economy of stances” (Hansen 1999) seemed already to have been established. The traditionalists complained that Fashion TV and beauty pageants were an affront to Indian modesty and mores. The liberal cosmopolitans lamented the provincialism and prudery of the cultural conservatives. It all came to a head around the question of ‘obscenity’ in July 2002. That month, legendary film director Vijay Anand resigned as chairperson of the film censor board, officially known as the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), after his plan to reform film censorship lost the backing of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which had appointed him only the previous year. The most overtly controversial of Vijay Anand’s proposals was to establish a string of dedicated movie theatres in Indian cities where X-rated films could be shown.2 In the wake of his resignation, the Englishlanguage media turned him into the kind of tragic hero it has always loved the best: an enlightened, worldly liberal sacrificed on the altar of political cowardice and cultural reaction. India Today’s cover story had the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting 2 The suggestion had apparently originally emerged from a relatively high-powered group of civil servants, writers, and journalists in Thiruvanathapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala (Bose 2005: 29). 3...
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