Monday, July 16, 2018

Slipping past the censors

[Did a version of this piece for a Mint Lounge special about film censorship. While on the subject, it’s worth noting how the game has changed with the advent of a Netflix series like Sacred Games, which I wrote about here. That show contains some very strong profanity (stronger than Gangs of Wasseypur, for instance, and in more precarious contexts) as well as nudity. Doubtless it will engender many more debates about the need to “control” content]

During a panel discussion at the Odisha Literary Festival last year, the actor Tillotama Shome remarked that a strict or even unreasonable censorship regime can, paradoxically, aid the cause of creativity – by forcing a filmmaker to find more inventive ways of saying what he needs to say.

Shome’s words were an echo of Orson Welles’s famous observation “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art”, and had a similar subtext, which went something like: Yes, we all know these aren’t optimum conditions for creative work, but let’s make the best of a tough situation.

Film history is full of examples of shackled directors coming up with creative solutions. Take the famous love scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious. Actors may lock lips for no longer than three seconds, declaimed the censor code of the time. So Hitch gave us Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, two of the all-time-great matinee idols, nuzzling each other for a couple of minutes in close-up as they moved through an apartment arm in arm – all the while making sure that each distinct kiss, punctuated by murmured conversation, stayed within the time limit. Ironically this brought a naturalistic, lived-in intensity to the sequence, making it more erotic than, say, a single five-second (gasp) clinch would have been.

But it would be short-sighted to look at censorship as a blessing in disguise just because cleverness is one of its byproducts. It can as easily – perhaps more easily – create stereotypes, encourage formulaic decisions and lead a filmmaking culture to stagnate. To take an obvious example, Indian cinema for much of its history had restrictions on kissing scenes, and our directors resorted to methods – cutaways to bobbing flowers, birds and bees – that may have been inventive at first, but which quickly became clichés through over-use.

As early as 1968, director Hrishikesh Mukherjee was so irked by these nature-documentary-like insets that he decided to simply fade to black during a scene in Aashirwad where two young lovers (played by Sumita Sanyal and Sanjeev Kumar) are drawing towards each other for what is indubitably going to be a lip-to-lip kiss. No coy giggling, no prancing away, no cuts to flora or fauna, just a fade-out that amounted to a filmmaker frankly telling his audience: “I’m not allowed to show you this, but I won’t use euphemisms either; so here are my handcuffs, in plain display.”

Other methods of bypassing the censors have included canny staging or camera positioning: in the 1966 Amrapali, a sensuous scene between Vyjayathimala and Sunil Dutt (the former playing a dancing girl, the latter a wounded soldier, both scantily dressed) is framed to suggest that she is straddling him (while he cries out in pain – or ecstasy?). But this risqué scene was also facilitated by the fact that the film was set thousands of years ago, in a period with
different sexual mores. In a comparable vein, firangi or Anglicized characters in our 1960s and 1970s films – such as the fair-skinned vamp played by Helen – could be seen doing things that the more traditional Indian characters wouldn’t have got away with. Different strokes – pun intended – for different folks.

The power of suggestion, it is often pointed out, can be more provocative and effective than what is explicitly depicted – and harder for a censor board to take scissors to. The image of the crying infant whose parents have just been slaughtered at the end of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, the camera lingering on the child’s bloody footsteps as it totters away, is more devastating than a gratuitous depiction of the actual slaughter would have been. Then there is the equal-opportunity-offence gambit, often used – in films like PK and Kai Po Che among others – when it comes to depicting matters of religious sensitivity: if there’s a scene that potentially offends Hindus, make sure there is also one that potentially offends Muslims, or vice versa. It’s another matter that this doesn’t always work, since viewers bring their prisms even to very balanced films, and those who cherish being “offended” usually only see the barbs directed at their own side.

Oblique word-play and diction may be put to gratuitous ends – in the 1980 Red Rose, Rajesh Khanna points to a rose-embroidered handkerchief strategically tied around salesgirl Poonam Dhillon’s waist and says, with a leering expression, “Woh mujhe dogi kya?” (“Will you give that to me?”) – but they can also be made to suit a film’s tone or setting. In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur Part 2, a youngster with a speech impediment can be heard muttering “bentot” – a distortion of a common but very strong Hindi abuse – while Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola does something similar with the word “banjo”. It should be noted that these two films (which weren’t going to get a “U” certificate anyway) were made in a relatively permissive climate that might have allowed the direct use of the word in question, but the scenes in question felt organic to the material, not forced or incorporated for cheap laughs.

Ultimately, much depends on the nature of a censorship regime and its ability to recognize context or to appreciate the effect that a shocking scene might be reaching for. In one of my favourite scenes in No One Killed Jessica, Rani Mukerji – looking like a sweet Yash Raj heroine but playing a tough-as-nails reporter – shuts up a jingoistic man who is going on about the Kargil War being so exciting. Taking recourse to a word that would once have been a strict no-no in our mainstream cinema, she tells him that if he had actually been in Kargil, "Gaand phat kar haath mein aa jaati".

The moment is made perfect by its utter unexpectedness in a casual setting (the inside of a plane waiting to take off, full of passengers making small talk) as well as the fact that it is an expression of righteous anger, in a film that takes on swaggering, pompous, power-drunk people. Personally, I’d add that watching the urbane Mukerji cuss thus is also something of a turn-on – but that would probably be seen as an undesirable side-effect in a socially conscientious film, so please don’t tell the censor-board chief.


  1. Or.. the Gabbar Singh scene when he is about to kill Sachin - he stubs out an insect with his cigarette and that was more effective than the murder/mayhem that is being shown with so much gore in Sacred Games. I confess, while I welcome the no-censorship opportunity that Netflix offers, I find Kashyap's handling of the "T&A" component to be unnecessarily crude and gratuitous. It's as if he has taken on the mantle of the only director who can realistically depict foul-mouthed gangsters. The innumerable shots of Gaitonde's sex scenes - did they really go towards fleshing out his character or pushing the narrative forward. There was no drama or surprise in them - to me they bordered on the ludicrous when all of us watching it sighed and said "there he (Kashyap, not Gaitonde) goes again".

  2. Oddly enough, a long comment posted by me has disappeared - did it not show up for you to read, Jai?