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Freedom of expression and censorship
"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." These are the dramatic opening lines of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's immensely powerful treatise "The Social Contract." Freedom is the most fundamental pillar of democracy: in its absence democracy turns into autocracy.

The French Revolution of 1789 made Liberty, Equality and Fraternity the most sacrosanct values of humanity. Any ruler or government that ensnared man away to a life of bondage has always met with perdition eventually. Their lives and reigns have been written in blood in the annals of history for posterity to remember them with derision and disdain.

Closer to our own home and hearth, gone are the days when parents and teachers (were) ruled by the dictum: 'Spare the rod, spoil the child.' Now every young parent gives so much freedom and leverage to the child that the kid feels heady at miniscule achievements, and parents look askance at teachers who display so much as an inkling of disapproval towards their ward. No sooner do the parents notice such disparagement towards their child than they unleash their belligerent instinct towards the 'offending' teacher. Such is the importance and weightage given today to freedom and choice in an individual's life from childhood onwards.

On the other hand, there are the ultra-patriotic, ultra-moralistic and ultra-'responsible' citizenry who are out to impose their decrees on all and sundry, dictating what the latter should see, hear, read, taste or consume! It is the same 'patriots' who mouth lengthy platitudes on human rights and, if given a chance, individual liberty, to boot.

The framers of the Indian Constitution envisaged and guaranteed seven rights as the most fundamental of rights – though the number was reduced to six after the deletion of the Right to Property by the 44th Constitutional Amendment. The Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression was placed at the top of their list. However, this right has now become one of the most maligned ones.

The Censor Board has taken upon itself the right and freedom to mutilate and impound whatever matter it regards as objectionable, in utter disregard to the raison d'etre that had prompted the artiste to append it along with, say, other scenes in a film. This imbecile mutilation does not just curtail but disrespects the artistic freedom enjoyed and given expression to by the artiste.

Recently, Anurag Kashyap's Udta Punjab bore the brunt of the butcher's knife and caused a furore all over the nation. News channels all over India in all languages were agog with high decibel debates. The producers were wary with the Censor Board, as, they maintained, the film had depicted the reality of drug menace in Punjab very vividly and realistically.

The film 'Aligarh' based on the last years of the life Prof Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras was slapped with an 'A' certificate due to allusions to homosexuality. In 2015, the word 'lesbian' was muted in Dum Lagake Haisha, which was a powerful feminist statement on marriage.

The last two movies were not apologias on homosexuality or lesbianism. Rather they depicted hardcore reality, which many would have balked at referencing even during table talk! Terry Tempest William says: "Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way." The producers of the above films were doing just that!

The Censor Board was established by the British in 1920 to regulate the public exhibition of films, especially to suppress content that was considered anti-colonial. With the implementation of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, the board was reconstituted, and the rules were revised again in 1983 to assume the current form. Such censorship of films was deemed necessary due to the potency of the audio-visual medium to capture the attention of the audience and mould their thought process. Much water has flown down the Ganga since 1920 and 1952, and the world has metamorphosed itself into a digitalized unfathomable black hole that is beyond the ken and comprehension of the interbellum generation. Yet the Censor Board is as self-righteous as ever, recommending curtailment of scenes. For example, take the film Miss Lovely. Despite being acclaimed all over the world in numerous film festivals, director Ashim Ahluwalia was asked by the Censor Board to make 157 cuts in the film!

It is not just technology and ease of film making that have altered (and have been altered in turn) during the hundred odd years since the establishment of the Censor Board: even the value systems have undergone a transformation that will shock the wits out of the older generation. The HUFs and arranged marriages that were so inviolable in a familial set up have been toppled and trampled upon by the millennial generation. Aged parents who had lived a life of freedom – in a state of nature, as Hobbes would describe – are caged up in old age homes as good riddance.

Pampering and indulgence have become synonymous with freedom today. When a young parent chides their child, the other parent takes offense at the former, since they feel that if the freedom of the child is hampered with even in small measures, their free and natural growth will be hindered, engendering disappointment and stress, resulting in stunted growth as an individual. (In such a scenario, what values do you think are going to be imbibed by the child?)

It is against this backdrop that censorship has to be viewed if it is to be beheld and understood from a vantage position. No doubt the formators of the Censor Board had impeccable intentions – that the impressionable mind of the youth should not be adversely impacted by what is shown or seen on the screen, thanks to the realistic illusion presented therein.

On the other hand, for the millennials, content is what they hold. Their cellular phone with the latest configuration (and now 4G) is the whole world and beyond for them. Whatever that the older generation wanted to keep out of their sight is in the palm of their hands. If it was love or lust that the Censor Board wished to conceal, teenagers studying in schools are more conversant with it and, at times, have had more firsthand experience than an adult 50 years ago. If it was expletives and cuss words that are sought to be hidden from them, ask teachers about the words and pictures scribbled on blackboards and carved on desks and benches. They will also tell you the number of CDs (a decade ago) and now mobile phones confiscated by them almost on a daily basis with hardcore pornographic material. There are collegians who regularly indulge in such pervert pleasures through legal subscriptions! Not taking these into consideration blinkers one's vision, like that of a horse.

What, then, does the Censor Board purports to suppress? What do all these moralistic and holier-than-thou diktats tantamount to? Suppression of the creative impulse. Massacre of originality. Crushing of artistic sensibility. Nothing else.

The number of films that have faced the Censor Board's axe due to sundry reasons, including vulgar language, explicit scenes, gender issues, the Kashmir conundrum, religion etc is mindboggling.

Besides the Censor Board, there are political parties, state governments and even some private organizations that have played a major role in banning the fruits of such creative endeavour, birthed after much toil and sacrifice.

In 2011, Northern States banned 'Aarakshan' (Reservation) due to its outright portrayal of caste quotas in government jobs and education. Bandit Queen, a film based on the life of Phoolan Devi, was banned due to vulgarity, although the film is a realistic depiction of whatever happened in the life of Phoolan Devi (which, incidentally, no government could forestall). Nevertheless, picturisation of the same was banned! Parzania, a film based on the Gujarat riots, won a national award for its cinematic excellence, but it was banned in Gujarat due to the perceived sensitivity of the issue.

Internationally acclaimed filmmaker Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996) and Water (2005), Mira Nair's Kama Sutra, A Tale of Love (1996) were all banned in India. However, did such a ban prevent Indians from having a dekko and relishing the films in question? Definitely no. Pirated copies and Torrents were available for free download and sharing, albeit illegally!

By censoring content, the Censor Board is doing a disservice to creativity and innovativeness. In fact, the Board is overstepping its brief. What is commonly known as the Censor Board is in reality Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). It is meant only to 'certify' films and not to maim them. Initially, their task had been to classify them into two categories: U and A. Later on, U/A [equivalent to Under Parental Guidance (PG)] and S (meant for Special class of persons/ for private viewing) were added.

In my considered view, the Censor Board needs to be censured, and it should censor itself from extending beyond its legitimate mandate and stick to its bounden task of certification.

However, since 'rights' does not mean libertinism, the Censor Board may serve as a watchdog with a view to ensuring that unpalatable matter is not bandied about. In case the Board feels that some content is offensive or may create unpleasantness or divisiveness among viewers, certain suggestions or recommendations may be given in confidence to the producers who ought to have the liberty to consider and accept or override the recommendations. The producers too should also maintain secrecy of the suggestions and refrain from maligning the authorities.

However, it is high time to have a re-look into the scope and responsibilities of the Censor Board and set appropriate parameters so that it remains relevant to the millennial society. If the members of the Board are unwilling to grow up and learn, creative artistes should come together as one body and fight against such authoritarianism. If a government manipulates the Censorship Act to suppress dissension, it ought to be dealt with a heavy hand. We cannot just resign ourselves to the situation and hope that things will improve on their own.

On the other hand, producers and artists ought to moderate themselves, instead of leaving themselves to be moderated by the Censor Board, for self-moderation is the best form of censorship.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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