Saturday, August 23, 2014

IN THE NEWS: INDIA'S "MORAL POLICE" AT IT AGAIN


I've long been planning a handful of entries on Indian cinema, some on the "Bollywood" machine and others on the smaller, though no less important niche of independent/art house/festival bait productions. This week, a short BBC column from Soutik Biswas on Why India Loves To Ban Films has encouraged me to revisit the ongoing issue of censorship. It is a cancer every developing nation has tackled at some point in history, and India's society, like many others today, continues to suffer. This isn't a country with a dead film culture. On the contrary, India has one of the largest established entertainment industries around. And yet, it doesn't take much to get the censorship board's knickers in a twist. 

For Bollywood productions, it's the westernized fashion (read: too small, too short, too tight, too see-through, ect.), the too-erotic dance choreography or, God forbid, a full on lip lock. The notably asinine launch of a criminal case against Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai for their fully visible brief kiss in Dhoom 2 (2006) comes to mind. They were accused of obscenity, vulgarity and, most audaciously, lowering the dignity of Indian women. If anything lowered the dignity of women in a state with a prevalent caste system and a problem with gang rape, it sure wasn't that kiss. 

Independent films are able to get away with more "controversial" content, but the issue becomes the production itself. It may be threatened, vandalized, or shut down. Biswas calls attention to Indo-Canadian female filmmaker (triple whammy!) Deepa Mehta and her massive troubles shooting Water (2005). After death threats to cast and crew from Hindu fundamentalists, riots, and destruction of sets, she had to reshoot the film in Sri Lanka with a new team. Mehta was said to be in the wrong for attempting to unfairly criticize a tradition in which widows of all ages are forced into seclusion for the rest of their lives. Her film dealt with an 8 year old child widow. When the outrage isn't with the tradition itself, but the horror of someone desecrating what is considered an otherwise normal practice, you know any remaining smidgeon of human intelligence and logic has long left the building.

The current uproar concerns Kaum De Heere (2014), a film about Indira Gandhi's assassination focusing heavily on the lives of the guards who killed her. Whether it truly glorifies them and their actions remains to be seen, but what is painstakingly clear, is that politicians, dead or alive, are also off limits for Indian filmmakers already operating within an extensively limiting bubble of cultural sensitivities. It matters little whether the film is fictionalized or a documentary. 

From a critical standpoint, Bollywood is often accused of pedaling mindless fluff and saccharine fantasy. Most of these productions are unwatchable even for the "so bad it's good" enthusiasts. They are no more "family" films than Kaum De Heere. There is a ratings system in place. There is viewer discretion. No one is made to watch anything they aren't interested in. When you go to the theatre, you have a choice of auditoriums. The categories and possibilities are endless. There is no excuse in this day and age to visit the cinema and then be outraged by what you saw. There is no surprise. Don't like it? Don't watch it. Don't take your children to it. But, transparency is essential. I want all content available to me regardless of what it is, the choice to see it has to be mine and mine alone. A government with no faith in its people to make those sorts of decisions somehow foregoes the obvious fact that the more you forbid something, the faster it spreads. You aren't eliminating the obscenity where there was none to begin with, though you are fostering it elsewhere in your community. Judging by the latest headlines, India was, is, and will remain a stunted, unfortunate example.

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