Institutional sanction for censorship

IN Censorship | 04/02/2015
In the AIB case, the government's 'swacch sanskruti' efforts seeks to use the law to impose its idea of a 'decent' society.
This emboldens the street censors, says GEETA SESHU
The decision of the Maharashtra government’s cultural affairs minster to conduct an inquiry into the AIB Knockout show and the decision of the regional office of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to bleep out the word ‘Bombay’ from the video ‘Sorry’, by artist Mihir Sharma, are dangerous indications of institutional sanction for censorship.
 
The government’s inquiry whether the AIB Knockout, a comedy show which uses a roast – a comedy genre that invites celebrities and pokes fun at them, cracking insulting jokes, with their consent  – had been given permission, is the most absurd and excessive misreading of the rules and regulations governing public exhibition. The rather feeble protestation that the government is not into ‘moral policing’ doesn’t cut much ice here.
 
As it is, the AIB team has decided to take down the offending videos from Youtube and is probably apprehensive of being booked under the draconian Sec 66 (a) of the amended Information Technology Act, 2000. Complaints against the show came, not from the ticketed audience of 4000, but by those who had seen the videos online.
 
According to reports, the state’s culture minister (also education minister) Vinod Tawde has asked his department to check whether necessary licences were granted to the organisers, including a permission from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for broadcasting show and the police department for a performance licence.  Already, a member of the Brahman Ekta Seva Sanstha, Akhilesh Tiwari, lodged an FIR with Saki Naka police station against the allegedly vulgar and obscene content in the show.
 
The AIB Knockout show, held at the Vallabhbhai Patel stadium on December 20 last year, featured Bollywood actors Ranveer Kapoor and Arjun Singh with film director and television show host Karan Johar and ‘roastmaster’. The show did garner some publicity in local newspapers and on social media networks but it was the videos that went viral on Youtube last week that got the attention of the authorities.

Performance licences are granted under Rule 118 of the Rules for Licensing and Controlling Places of Amusement (other than Cinemas) and Performances for Public Amusement, including Melas and Tamashas, 1960 while those who manage the places for public entertainment must ensure (under rule 21-A of section 33of the Bombay Police Act) that performances or exhibitions must not have any ‘profanity or any obscene or indecent language (1-a) or allow any ‘indecency of dress, dance or gesture’ (1-b).

Theatre in Maharashtra has had to contend with the censors a number of times, not just for its folk dance performances like the lavni, well-known for bawdy lyrics. The celebrated playwright Vijay Tendulkar had to deal with charges of obscenity for his plays ‘Gidhade’ and ‘Ghasiram Kotwal’ in the 70s and, as recent as 2012, the Marathi translation of The Vagina Monologues (titled ‘Yonichya Maneechya Gujgoshti’, translated and directed by Vandana Khare), when the scheduled staging of the play in Thane was abruptly cancelled because of verbal complaints.

Stage performances are regulated by the ‘Rangbhoomi Prayog Parinirikshan Mandal’ or Stage Performances Scrutiny Board, to which theatre groups need to submit written scripts for prior verification. Besides the fact that terms like obscenity or indecency have no definition, the use of profanity is again contextual and cultural, also changing over time.

Tired of the censors curbs, a few documentary film-makers are eschewing the film certification route and releasing films directly on Youtube or holding private screenings.

In any case, the resignation of Leela Samson as chairperson and her team amidst allegations of political interference and the charge of political influence on the Central Board of Film Certification with the  appointment of Pahlaj Nihalani as the new chairperson with a team that has close links with the ruling BJP, it would be well to examine the original principles that went into setting up this organization and the manner in which it is being consistently undermined.
 
Popularly known as the Censor Board, thanks to the term used to describe the board in the Cinematograph Act, 1952(Part II, Sec 3), the board is mandated with the certification of films for public exhibition. It is required to be headed by a person of eminence in the field of cinema or art – though the act or its rules do not explicitly say so.

In the AIB case, the government’s ‘swacch sanskruti’ efforts seeks to use the law to impose its idea of a ‘decent’ society, but others adopt the law of the street to censor anything they are offended by.

From state to street censorship

Tamil author Perumal Murugan’s plight was the latest in the long list of instances of street censorship by saffron groups. Over the last few years, vigilante Hindutva groups like the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and other such groups have perfected the art of violent protests of books, film, theatre, documentary film screenings.
 
And the protests and complaints by sections of Urdu media and cultural groups against the Urdu editor Shirin Dalvi for making use of a cover of the french satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is yet another example of offence-taking by Muslim groups.
 

When there are curbs on those who speak or sing of the dark times too, sanctioned by law enforcers, its time to re-examine the institutions that are set up to regulate freedom of expression in the arts. 

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