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Friday, July 29, 2016

An old contest - Technology has made a mockery of effective censorship

By Swapan Dasgupta 

The battle between the judiciary and the executive (and its various arms) is never ending. In the recent past, it has actually intensified as the courts have stepped into a twilight zone created either by the executive's dereliction of its responsibilities or by an onrush of judicial activism. In the public eye, the intensity of the conflict is magnified when the battle lines are over civil liberties.

In a recent judgment, the Bombay High Court cleared the film, Udta Punjab, for public viewing after ordering one scene to be deleted. Earlier, the Central Board of Film Certification - erroneously referred to in everyday usage as the censor board - had made the release of the film conditional on 89 cuts. Additionally, the high court berated the CBFC for its "poor understanding of people's minds"- a serious charge considering that the board has been entrusted the responsibility of being the country's moral guardian, at least in one sphere of the creative arts.

The battle between film-makers and the CBFC is not new, and predates the contested appointment of Pahlaj Nihalani as the chairman by the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. However, the spirited controversy over the appointment has served to make the issue a facet of the wider war being waged by 'progressive' and left-inclined artistes and intellectuals against the Bharatiya Janata Party. A significant section of the creative community believes that the BJP is blessed with a retrograde world view that it seeks to impose on the country.

Given the fact that international - and, by implication, Western-dominated -views on India are disproportionately shaped by the predilections of India's intellectual community, it is hardly surprising that the Udta Punjab controversy was viewed as further evidence of India's steady drift towards becoming an 'illiberal' democracy, along the lines of, say, Turkey. The world media had a blast ridiculing the Narendra Modi government for the CBFC's censorship of a prolonged kissing scene in the most recent James Bond film - an act that, apart from being a little over the top, amounted to doing the reputation of Agent 007 grave injustice.

To view the Udta Punjab controversy exclusively through the prism of artistic freedom is tempting, and even partially valid. However, in the context of a booming industry whose box-office turnover is calculated at something in the region of Rs 250 billion, there are other important considerations.

The striking differences between the high court and the CBFC over what is appropriate for public viewing turned out to be huge: one cut versus 89 deletions. Arguably, the Indian Cinematograph Act that prescribes the responsibilities of the CBFC allows a huge scope for discretion. Section 5(B)1 of the Act stipulates that "a film shall not be certified for public exhibition if... it is against the interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality... or is likely to incite the commission of any offence."

If this constitutes a vast canvas, there are also the May 1983 guidelines issued to the CBFC by the Union government. These charge the CBFC with ensuring "the medium of film remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society"; to ensure "artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed"; and to see that "certification is responsive to social change."

That the guidelines of the CBFC permit for a great deal of subjectivity is obvious. However, when the differences between two versions of enlightened wisdom turn out to be yawning, it could mean either of two things. First, that one of the involved parties was guilty of individual flights of whimsy. Second, the huge perceptional difference could point to the fact that the national consensus over the limits of freedom has broken down irretrievably.

Viewed either way, this is not good news for an industry that combines both wholesome entertainment and the avant-garde. It is understood that film-makers in India work with a large measure of self-restraint, particularly in matters of sex, violence and politics. Moreover, while being mindful of the CBFC, they have also had to develop a sixth sense about the 'super sensors' - those who believe it is their right to be violently aggrieved at the slightest provocation. Taking offence has become a vibrant cottage industry in India and even films cleared by the CBFC without too much fuss have been withdrawn from cinemas following charges that they offended someone living or dead or some community.

Indeed, given the minefields in its path, not least of which is the sheer unpredictability of the film-certification process, it is a wonder that India's film industry has soared to such heights and become an important facet of the country's soft power. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the industry would have grown further and even notched up Rs 500 billion at the box office annually had it not been for socio-political impediments. At the same time, it is worthwhile remembering that most of the films that have been box-office hits and even set cultural trends haven't faced problems with the CBFC. Neither have the so-called 'daring' films that have tested the open-mindedness of the CBFC made much of a mark in the Indian diaspora. The only possible exception may have been Sholay, made during the Emergency years, that was forced to modify a part of its storyline because the CBFC objected to its supposed glorification of violence. But then Emergency also saw Kishore Kumar songs being taken off the State-controlled radio because he had said no to performing at a Youth Congress rally.

The suggestion put forward by the yet-unreleased Shyam Benegal committee report to force the CBFC to confine itself to certification and avoid negotiating cuts is appealing. However, it is unlikely to appeal to most of India and not even to the industry. The last thing India can afford is to face a cultural backlash on account of the radical experimentation of a few film-makers whose contribution to the industry as a whole has been modest. What sets a trend and secures the endorsement of the practitioners of the abstruse discipline called Film Studies should not be allowed to set the standards of openness.

However, it is instructive to remember that the overriding importance of cinema in the social and cultural life of India has been significantly eroded by the multiplicity of entertainment channels on TV and the internet revolution. Both these developments are interesting for the simple reason that TV programmes and video streaming on YouTube are available to everyone without pre-censorship. The sheer volume of sexually explicit and culturally reprehensible material available on the internet has only served to underline the self-defeating character of prudish moral policing by the CBFC. Technology has made a mockery of effective censorship.

At one level, the censorship debate constitutes a footnote in public affairs. For the mainstream film industry too, the inherent arbitrariness of the certification process is a minor (but entirely manageable) irritant. Yet, each occasion, some pretentious film-maker dares the authorities and tests the endurance levels of artistic freedom, the international fraternity of liberals comes down hard on India, portraying it as a grim place where only buccaneers would love to do business. Contesting this one-sided narrative is, alas, not really possible in an unequal world where the idea of freedom is judged in terms of its proximity to permissiveness. Curbing prudish impulses has become an ease of doing business imperative.

Telegraph, July 29, 2016



Friday, July 1, 2016

Against The Grain: Brexit is a comment on the EU experience

By Swapan Dasgupta

When the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey detected the lights going out all over Europe on a summer evening in August 1914, he was being both poetic and prescient. The war that ensued following the accidental assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had no real victors and signalled the end of Old Europe. The scars of that war still live us as Great Britain commemorates the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, a single devastating battle that could be said to have begun the process of the end of the British Empire. 

There was a lot of melancholic poetry that accompanied the referendum over continuing membership of the European Union on June 23. As the dramatic decision of the electorate to leave the EU became apparent, there was an outpouring of emotion from those who had endorsed the losing side. ‘Our futures dashed’, ‘youth disenfranchised’ and the ‘end of the United Kingdom’ were among the more parliamentary expressions of sadness. On social media—an invaluable archive for future historians—the losers turned their anger on the surprise winners of the Brexit campaign. The No voters were dubbed ‘morons’, ‘bigots’ and ‘racists’ and the heavy artillery was directed at the UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and the two Conservative Party stalwarts—Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. The 17 million ‘idiots’ who had voted No were accused of succumbing to ‘lies’. In a spectacular display of the crab mentality, the media reserved its harshest abuse for fellow journalist Johnson because he was said to have pilloried the EU in order to get his foot into the door of 10 Downing Street. 

Never, in recent memory, has a democratic outcome been subject to so much vilification. This included a demand for the disenfranchisement of elderly voters, the social vanguard of the Brexit army, and a demand for Parliament to overturn the sovereignty of the people. A Leftist pamphlet I received on email observed: “There seems to be a special brand of bigotry aimed at white working class voters, with talk of ‘sewers’.”

Unappetising decisions often result in lamentation. Sir Winston Churchill’s eloquently horrifying prognosis of the India that would emerge after the Union Jack had been lowered must surely count as one contemporary history’s most famous wrong numbers. But there have been more considered, but no less heartfelt, expressions of despair. In July 1971, shortly after Britain announced its intention of entering the European Common Market (as it was then modestly called), the British High Commissioner to Australia wrote to his Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home in London: “The world seems chillier and more lonely than it did a fortnight ago. Speeches are made and editorials written, drawing the inference that in a world where Britain seeks her future as a part of Europe, Australia must henceforth base her relationships on the Pacific and on Asia… But it is all done somewhat against the grain. This is not yet an Asia-oriented country but a displaced European one, and in a deep sense still British.”

As diplomatic despatches go, this was remarkably forthright. More important, it was prescient too. Britain’s entry into the Common Market in 1973 led to a corresponding downgrading of the Commonwealth, particularly as far as the old Dominions were concerned. Australia, as the High Commissioner quite rightly anticipated, was dragged into becoming more of an Asian country, as it is today. But the emotional links that tied Britain to Australia, New Zealand and even Canada are still alive, even if there is lack of intensity. 

In their articulation of a post-Brexit world, the leading No campaigners (and I am not including Nigel Farage who seems quite content with his contrived golf club conviviality) have stressed that liberation from the EU is likely to give Britain more elbow room in the world. Using a combination of trade and strategic partnerships, the UK, it is argued, can revive its older links with the Anglophone world (including India) and China and give these a new direction. 

Whether the move away from an increasingly Federal Europe leads to Britain discovering a new national purpose is best left to posterity to judge. To begin with, there is the open question of the ability of the Brexiteers to identify a new leader that can unite the four nations of the UK in a common endeavour. As of now, it will require considerable nerves for the new leader of the Conservative Party to balance the scepticism of the financial markets, the cussedness of the Scottish Parliament, the bloody-mindedness of the Brussels Eurocrats with the “Independence Day” mood that has gripped the proverbial “forgotten people” who prevailed on June 23. As of now, David Cameron’s plea to the EU to show some flexibility and concern for national sentiment on immigration has fallen on deaf ears. But if other expressions of national resentment—as in France, Hungary, the Scandinavian bloc and even Germany—starts affecting Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Hollande, it may still be possible to secure a happy blend of market access and nationalism. 

The UK referendum outcome is momentous because one of the big European power with membership of the UN Security Council—and not some Ruritanian enclave—has questioned the efficacy of the grand post-War European project that sought to dissolve national boundaries. The Euro has not been an unmitigated success, and can’t be if there isn’t a political union. The efficacy of the Schengen arrangement of seamless borders was a great idea when the EU was confined to Western Europe. However, with Eastern European nations joining the club and the fear of the Islamic State triggering a huge movement of peoples, the EU is confronted with stark choices. Either it can grudgingly admit that British voters were wise and that the world is too imperfect to twin free trade with the free movement of people. Alternatively, it can dig in its heels and proclaim that the present imperfections can be done away if the EU has a common foreign policy, a European army and national parliaments are reduced to a decorative role. The EU is asking for its member states to be less French, German, Dutch, Italian, Greek, English and Hungarian and become more European. The EU project is aimed at reversing a process that began with the Treaty of Westphalia. 

Curiously, this is a debate that a section of the British intelligentsia are familiar with. In the 1960s, there was a schism between the Old Left and the New Left. It was claimed by the New Left radicals such as Perry Anderson that radicalism in Britain had never taken off because it was still influenced by both empiricism and the moderate radicalism of its Labour movement. The likes of Anderson implored their British colleagues to become more European and embrace the ideas flowing from the Left Bank and the Frankfurt School. The lively debate between Anderson and Edward Thompson on the “particularities” of the English was an important feature of intellectual life in the UK at the time of the first referendum in 1975. 

The UK has certainly become more European in the 43 years of its membership of the European project. But it says a great deal on the quality of that experience that the generation that voted so enthusiastically for the Common Market in 1975 has now resoundingly turned its back on the EU in 2016. That in itself tells a story—if only we could gauge its complex meaning. 

The Telegraph, July 1, 2016