Fifty Shades of *Bleep* – let’s talk censorship

by Koka Tarini Siddhartha

With the much-talked-about Fifty Shades franchise set to release the second film in its series in less than a fortnight, we could not think of a more appropriate time to write a post on censorship in India and the diverse public perception of obscenity. While this is something  often spoken cautiously about, and an area where people generally tend to tread carefully owing to an overlap of personal philosophies, public opinion and the omnipresent issue of morality, this is our sincere attempt to simplify and comprehend the issue.

Obscenity and its surrounding censorship is widespread. There is censorship on music, films, books, what goes up on the internet (whether it is a Facebook status, satire or pornographic content) — the list is potentially endless. This post revolves primarily around the censorship of films and books, along with an analysis of the reasons behind it.

What is obscenity anyway?

Oddly enough, no one really knows. Its meaning in an English dictionary is “anything lascivious or appealing to the prurient interest of people” (which is as vague as it can get). India is a country known to have borrowed several legal concepts from other countries (Fundamental Rights from the United States, Fundamental Duties from Australia, Rule of Law from the United Kingdom and so forth.)

The originating point in the legal history of obscenity is the Hicklin Test. This test was laid down in an English case in 1868 (Regina v. Hicklin), which stated that if any portion of a work was obscene, the entire work would be outlawed. This implied that the work would not be viewed as a whole. For example, a disputed scene in a film would be watched and judged independently, and so out of context, of course there was a higher chance people would consider it obscene.

This test was adopted in the United States and India as well. In the United States, it was overruled in a landmark decision (Roth v. United States, 1957) where the majority concluded that viewing the work out of context was illogical and unreasonable, suggesting the adoption of a contemporary community standards test. India finally adopted this test in 2014 (Aveek Sarkar v. State of West Bengal), when the Supreme Court of India also dismissed the Hicklin Test.

(This judgment received backlash as it disregarded two judgments which ousted the Roth case but, it is still highly regarded as it was a step forward in the evolution of Indian obscenity laws. You can find a noteworthy analysis of the 2014 case here.)

What are the Indian laws governing obscenity?

The sale, distribution, public exhibition, possession, etc., of obscene material is a punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 (Sections 292-294). There are varying punishments in the form of imprisonments and fines, and when any obscene material is communicated to a person below the age of twenty years, the punishment is more severe. Yet again, ironically, nowhere in the IPC is the term ‘obscene’ defined!

What is the relationship between obscenity and censorship?

The IPC punishes obscene content published in the form of books, drawings, paintings, films, songs and the like. Publications made for the public good, in the interest of learning, and those relating to ancient monuments or religious purposes are the only exceptions.

In the absence of a fixed definition assigned to the term ‘obscene,’ there is a constant clash between what the law defines as obscene, what the judges interpret as obscene and what individuals like you and me think it means. Additionally, in the increasingly intolerant world we live in, there is a divided opinion on most subjects.

Popular cases in India relating to ‘obscene work’ and its censorship revolve around the banning of books and films. D. H. Lawrence’s book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was adjudged to be obscene due to the sexual content and inappropriate language in the book (Ranjit D. Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra).

Films are the most widely censored work. The origins of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) can be traced to the British rule in India when films were censored in Indian theatres to “prevent Indian minds from being corrupted by American ideologies”. Continuing to live on even after independence, this board is considered to be the sternest film censoring board in the world.

As images have a greater impact on people than printed work, we come across films being censored more than work in any other medium. Leading reasons for film censorship are sexual content, sexuality, violence, foul language and promiscuity. The Pink Mirror, Vishwaroopam, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and more recently, Udta Punjab, are a few films that have been subjected to numerous cuts by the CBFC.

What is worrying about all of this?

The uncertainty of it all. There is no standardized mechanism to determine whether something is obscene or not. The CBFC is a board comprising of experts from many backgrounds including law, social science, economics and film critics — but has this made a difference? No. Film-makers and producers are, more often than not, uncertain whether their film will pass the board’s requirements. Additionally, if you are famous enough, with some ‘pull’ in the industry, you can bribe the board and get a U/UA rating which in turn allows your film to be screened to a larger audience and you get to pay tax at a lower rate (a pitiful advantage).

The more you think about how vague it is, the more confounding it gets. Let’s take the Fifty Shades of Grey series as an example. The books contain a lot of explicit sexual content, violent in the sense that they involve BDSM fetishes, and depict the female protagonist as the weaker sex. Basing this on previous censoring actions taken by the government, you’d think this book would be banned from being sold or distributed in India. But no, the book is a multi-million dollar success, sold in every bookstore!

The success of the book saw its adaptation into a film series. Here’s where the CBFC acted in complete contradiction. They gave the film an ‘A’ rating, cut out big chunks which showed any kind of nudity or anything that could “sexually arouse” the audience, and after all that, they did not permit the film’s release.

The most worrying aspect about the CBFC is that their censorship might result in a completely different story than what was intended. Sometimes, scenes depicting rape (such as that of Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen), torture or even homosexuality, are necessary to convey a story. Cutting the scenes out is a disservice to film-makers and audiences alike.

A powerful organisation such as theirs controls ratings of films and television shows (‘A’-rated TV shows can be shown only after 11 p.m.). Even after a film or TV show receives an ‘A’ rating, you will still find scenes inelegantly chopped out.

TV shows such as Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black contain a lot of explicit content, but censoring those scenes takes away the essence of the story. Ever noticed how a one hour show without advertisements on your laptop runs for only fifty minutes with ads on your HD channel?

We might do a follow-up post in the future to cover other issues relating to censorship, but until then, we can only muse over this very odd and off-putting state of affairs.

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