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The secret life of film censorship

The processes and practices of censorship are really a series of transactions by which the boundaries of ‘prohibition’ and ‘acceptability’ are constantly negotiated. Conventional studies of censorship invariably emphasise its institutional and prohibitive aspects, writes Shohini Ghosh. But the processes, practices and consequences of censorship are also ‘productive’, suggesting not just what we may not see but also suggesting the proper way of seeing, and building a theory of cinema, of spectatorship and the idea of the public

If film and cultural studies argue that cinematic texts are open to a number of readings, then censorship believes in just the reverse. Censorship is always carried out on the basis of a singular interpretation of a text with the belief that, if allowed to pass, the images could have a ‘harmful impact’ on the viewer. What kind of harm can images do? The most commonly held belief is that images can cause harm by instigating imitative action. In other words, it can lead people (or at least some people) to violence, sexual assault or other harmful activities. The second notion of ‘harm’ around which censorship is invoked concerns images that offend, degrade or belittle groups or individuals. Those who hold this view believe that one may rightfully ask for the elimination of an image, speech or representation if it ‘offends’ groups or communities. Those who disagree with this view argue that there is no speech that does not offend someone.

Most of the anxieties around the ‘image-causes-harm’ theory revolve around screen violence and sexually explicit imagery. Janet Staiger aptly sums up the academic position when she writes: “The proposition that violent movies produce imitative behaviour has had great media attention and equal critical scholarly rejection.” (1) Over the years, there has been no evidence to show that images have a direct impact on behaviour. Film texts, regardless of authorial intention, are open to many different readings as viewers construct meaning according to their predisposition, generic expectations and what scholar Annette Hill has described as their “portfolios of interpretations”.

Insofar as the notion of ‘image is the harm’ is concerned, it has been pointed out that since images are hugely interpretable, there can be no consensus about its ‘meaning’. Radical feminists in the USA invoked both notions of ‘harm’ to demand the banning of pornography. Using slogans like “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice”, they drew a straight line between pornography and male sexual violence. Pornography, they said, causes harm and is itself harm in that it “degrades” women. The anti-censorship feminists, on the other hand, initiated debates that profoundly shaped the contemporary understanding of consent, women’s sexual pleasure, and the wisdom of using censorship as a strategy for social change. They drew attention to the difference between sexist speech and sexually explicit speech and argued that by conflating sexual explicitness with sexism/misogyny, anti-porn feminists had failed to interrogate gender-based discrimination in ‘respectable institutions’ like religion, the family, and the judiciary. They argue that terms like ‘obscenity’, ‘degradation’, ‘objectification’ and ‘commodification’ are highly subjective terms that were bound to be interpreted differently by different people. The best way to counter discriminatory speech, they advocated, was not censorship but counter-speech.

But does this mean that media has no ‘impact’ at all?  If words and images left no impact, why would we make films, write articles or even present papers at conferences? Studies in spectatorship tell us that the relationship between the image and the viewer is complex and is contoured by a variety of social and personal factors. Meaning is not produced exclusively by either the text or the viewer, but emerges at the intersection of both. As Linda Williams writes, any study or theory of spectatorship must be “historically specific, grounded in specific spectatorial practices, the specific narratives and the specific attractions of the mobilised and embodied gaze of the viewers” (2). There is no doubt that media has consequences and does influence, inflect and mediate but in ways that are contingent, non-determinate and certainly not predictable. Therefore, to state that the media does not have predictable impact is not the same as saying it has no impact at all. Ironically, all acts of censorship work through the logic of a singular meaning and a predictable impact. For this reason, film scholar Annette Kuhn writes that attempts at censoring are bound to fail because the censors “construct” film texts as “carriers of fixed meanings, when meaning is not actually inherent in film texts but produced in the process of their consumption” (3).

While film censorship’s avowed aim is to protect people from harmful effects, it is always executed by a select few who watch and interpret the film on behalf of everybody else. Since no group can ever represent the diversity and heterogeneity of real audience members, this process remains arbitrary, even idiosyncratic. Sometimes the inability of the censors to ‘decipher’ meaning has also been the basis of censorship. The British Board of Film Censor’s verdict on Germaine Dulac’s 1927 European avant-garde classic Seashell and the Clergyman read: “The film is so cryptic as to be meaningless. And if it has any meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.”

Annette Kuhn’s influential work on censorship points out that conventional studies on censorship have invariably emphasised its institutional and prohibitive aspects, constructing it as an activity on the part of the specific organisations whose avowed objective it is to impose control on films usually by excluding from them themes, topics and images deemed for one reason or another, unacceptable. Inspired by the writings of French philosopher Michel Foucault, she argues that the processes, practices and consequences of censorship are not only prohibitive, but also ‘productive’. Queer theorist Judith Butler extends the same argument by pointing out that the term ‘productive’ should not be understood to mean “positive or beneficial” but as proposing “a view of power as formative and constitutive” and not “conceived exclusively as an external exertion of control or the deprivation of liberties” (4). Since film censorship involves a set of interrelated institutions, practices and discourses, its power cannot be conceptualised as monolithic, deterministic or wholly repressive. As legal scholar Lawrence Liang explains, the prohibitive approach prevents us from seeing “a wide range of ways in which the law is building a theory of cinema, of spectatorship and the idea of the public”. He says that the law “is not merely interested in prohibiting a particular kind of ‘seeing’, but also equally interested in suggesting the proper way of seeing”.  

Annette Kuhn invites us to understand the process of film censorship as a “play of production and prohibition”. Resistance she says is ‘produced’ by strategies of regulation. If censorship produces resistance, it generates, in turn, further acts of censorship in order to maintain the boundaries of what is “acceptably representable”. This makes censorship an “ongoing process of definition and boundary-maintenance produced and re-produced in challenges to, and transgressions of, the very limits it seeks to fix”.

Take for instance the films that were produced under the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code that governed Hollywood film production from 1930 to 1968. The code stated that “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden” which essentially implied that no reference to homosexuality could be made. Yet a number of films found inventive ways of ‘showing’ homosexuality through allusion, allegories and oblique suggestions. Based on Vitto Russo’s famous book, The Celluloid Closet (1996, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman) is a documentary about the different ways in which homosexuality found expression in Hollywood cinema. With extensive film clips from over 100 films and interviews with filmmakers, scholars and actors like Tony Curtis, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dyer, Gore Vidal and Shirley McClaine, the film shows how homosexuality was both silenced and articulated in Hollywood films of the period.  

The Production Code’s primary attempt was to avoid bans and boycotts that would affect the commercial prospects of films. As newer more radical viewers emerged, the Production Code began to creak under pressure. In 1956, the code was revised wherein ‘responsible’ treatments of drug addiction, prostitution and inter-racial sexual relations were permitted. Other barriers fell in the 1950s and 1960s including representations of “illicit sex”. It was further shortened in 1966 and altogether scrapped in 1968 in favour of a ratings system whereby a formal system of classification was evolved to determine the suitability of films for different age-groups.

In India, the authority of the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) is subverted in a number of ways even as filmmakers are aware that it provides them cover from facing any direct attack or litigation. Apart from persuasion and reasoning, filmmakers and producers are known to offer bribes, gifts and favours to officials. Films that are released in suburban or smaller towns are often known to use fake censor certificates or add ‘prohibited’ sequences after the film has been censored. One of the most popular (and effective) strategies of negotiation involves shooting and editing of extra footage (of mostly sex or violence) so that even after extensive  cuts are made what is allowed to remain is sufficient for the purposes of the film. On occasion, there are the ‘benefits’ that accrue from a ‘censorship controversy’. One film producer at a recent meeting with CBFC officials regretted that his new release did not cause a ‘censorship controversy’ thereby boosting the publicity of the film. 

Some filmmakers have confronted the authority of the CBFC more directly. Independent filmmaker Anand Patwardhan whose political documentaries were inevitably subjected to major cuts fought protracted legal battles to have his films telecast on national television and released in theatres. On the other hand, a large number of documentary filmmakers refuse to submit their films to the CBFC and disseminate their work through non-formal and non-theatrical networks. I never sent my own documentary, Tales of the Night Fairies (2002), on the sex workers’ rights movement in Kolkata to the CBFC. The film contains sexually explicit language, discusses sex outside marriage, challenges heteronormativity and strongly favours the decriminalisation of sex work. I had no doubts that the CBFC would consider it “against public morality and decency” and I was not wrong. That same year, In the Flesh, Bishakha Datta’s 53-minute documentary on sex workers, was submitted for certification. The CBFC refused to certify it for public viewing by stating that: “The film promotes sex, prostitution, drinking and smoking, free use of these even with women, use of vulgar language and promoting extra-marital relations.” (5)

Censorship can severely damage the public circulation and commercial prospects of a film, but in the age of piracy, Internet downloads and new technologies of access and circulation, it cannot extinguish the work. The CBFC in India cannot be oblivious to the fact that ‘uncensored’ Hollywood films are available to audiences through on-line and off-line pirate networks much before the censored versions are allowed to hit the theatres. Why then does the CBFC persist with its mission? We may gain an insight if we begin to understand that censorship has less to do with cinema and more to do with regulation of the public sphere. A member of the CBFC once told me: “We do not care if people are watching uncensored films privately, but we cannot have them watch objectionable sequences publicly.” 

The processes and practices of censorship are really a series of transactions by which the boundaries of ‘prohibition’ and ‘acceptability’ are constantly negotiated. The censorship controversy around the climax of Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975), Bombay cinema’s biggest blockbuster, provides an excellent illustration. The director’s cut presented to the censor board showed the ruthless dacoit Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) being killed by former police officer Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) at the end of the film. In the story, Gabbar Singh is responsible for killing almost all members of Thakur’s family as vendetta because the latter had captured and put him in jail. To add insult to injury, Gabbar brutally severs Thakur’s arms from his body. In her book on the making of the film, Anupama Chopra describes the original climax as follows:

The Thakur kills Gabbar with his feet wearing shoes that the servant Ramlal has fashioned with nails fitted in the soles. The armless Thakur first crushes Gabbar’s arms. Then they stand face-to-face, two armless warriors, two equals. And the Thakur pounds Gabbar to death as if he were a venomous snake; he does not stop till the dacoit is a bloody mess under his shoes. Then he breaks down and cries. He weeps long and hard: his life’s mission is complete, but all he feels is a vast emptiness. It is a pyrrhic victory. Revenge begets only loss. (6)

The censor board took serious objection to the sequence especially as the film was being examined during the Emergency when censorship was at its worst. The CBFC objected to the suggestion that a police officer -- even though he was no longer in service -- should take the law into his own hands and punish the culprit with death. They demanded that the climax be re-shot so that the police could arrive and prevent Thakur from killing Gabbar Singh. Ramesh Sippy was furious as these suggestions were totally contrary to his authorial vision. The end being suggested by the CBFC was not only hackneyed but (as Sippy tried to argue) also showed the police in a poor light. After all, where was the police when dacoits were looting and plundering the village? All negotiations failed as the CBFC refused to budge. Finally, Ramesh Sippy had to shoot a new conclusion which is now the film’s official climax. In asserting the rule of law both within and outside the film, the CBFC acted as guardian gatekeepers whose job it was to protect the people from ‘messages’ deemed injurious to public health.

In Excitable Speech, Judith Butler proposes that censorship seeks to produce subjects according to explicit and implicit norms, and that the production of the subject has everything to do with the regulation of speech. The production of the subject happens not just through the regulation of speech but through the “regulation of the social domain of speakable discourse”. She writes: “To move outside the domain of speakability is to risk one’s status as a subject. To embody the norms that govern one’s speech is to consummate one’s status as the subject of speech.”  Therefore, “impossible speech” as in the “ramblings of the asocial” and “the rantings of the psychotic” are ‘produced’ by the domain of speakability, and also haunted by it. Cinema frequently occupies the space of the unruly subject who needs to be disciplined, controlled and punished if necessary. But like all unruly subjects, it resists. In the process, cinema and cinephilia repeatedly muddle and re-constitute the borders of the prohibited and the acceptable, the speakable and the non-speakable. If censorship attempts to silence speech, cinema has the ability to make speech out of silence.

(This is an abridged version of an essay written for Count Me In!, a conference organised by CREA, Kathmandu, April 16-18, 2011)

(Shohini Ghosh is Sajjad Zaheer Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia)  

1 Staiger, Janet. Media Reception Studies, New York University Press (New York-London), 2005
2 Williams, Linda (ed). Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick-New Jersey), 1995
3 Annette Kuhn, Cinema, Censorship and Society (1909-1925), Routledge (London-New York), 1988
4 Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, Routledge (New York-London), 1997
5 Examining Committee, Central Board of Film Certification, August 27, 2002
6 See Sholay: The Making of a Classic by Anupama Chopra, Penguin, 2000

Infochange News & Features, July 2011