Censorship – The Laws of Bollywood

Bollywood movies are under strict censorship. You didn’t know that, did you? Well, they are. And it’s partially not too pretty. However, while we at Uncanny.ch are generally opposed to any kind of censorship of the arts, at least one of the movie-censorship-articles has its merits.

Let’s look at Bollywood’s censoring for a minute before we get to the articles as well as a bit of commentary on it. First of all, it is always good to know who the censors are. In Bollywood, they’re not a secret cabal of moustache-twirling villains, trying to sway popular opinion one way or the other or a military regime spewing propaganda. In India, it’s the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). It mainly gives out age-recommendations for movies. These are:

  • U – Universal: Everybody can watch it without supervision. All ages and whatnot.
  • UA – Universal with Adult Supervision: Kids can go see it, but they need to be with a parent or adult when they do. In these movies, there could be some sexual innuendo, some tame sex scenes, some blood, and even some cursing.
  • A – Adults only: You need to be 18 years of age to see this. Disturbing themes lie ahead, so does brutal violence, a lot of swearing, blood and gore, what is described as “Heavy sex scenes” as well as drugs.
  • S – Specialized: This movie is not for the public. An S-Rated movie might be something like a documentary for doctors that shows an autopsy. Basically, stuff you wouldn’t want to see anyways unless you have a weird fetish or you have to watch it for your job.

The CBFC is made up of non-official members and a chairperson. They’re appointed by the central government rather than elected and they sit in nine offices around India. Their headquarters, much like anything movie-related in India, are in Mumbai, though. Currently, a dancer holds the highest position in the CBFC. In order for a movie to get any kind of public screening, it must have been approved by the CBFC. So they hold the absolute power on what Indians see in cinemas.

Enough organizational blahblah. Let’s get to the part where they regulate what movies can and can’t show. Thus, get ready for some legalese. Feel free to skip it as there’s an analysis of it further down. It is also important to note that we’re absolutely against any kind of censorship in books, movies, media or the arts.

The Laws

In 1991, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting of India outlined the tasks of the CBFC as follows. The certification is to ensure that:

  • (a) the medium of film remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society;
  • (b) artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed;
  • (c) certification is responsive to social change;
  • (d) the medium of film provides clean and healthy entertainment; and
  • (e) as far as possible, the film is of aesthetic value and cinematically of a good standard.

In pursuance of the above objectives, the Board of Film Certification shall ensure that-

  • (i) anti-social activities such as violence are not glorified or justified.
  • (ii) the modus operandi of criminals, other visuals or words likely to incite the commission of any offence are not depicted;
  • (iii) Scenes –
  • (a) showing involvement of children in violence as victims or as perpetrators or as forced witness to violence, or showing children as being subjected to any form of child abuse;
  • (b) Showing abuse or ridicule of physically and mentally handicapped persons; and
  • (c) showing cruelty to, or abuse of, animals, are not presented needlessly;
  • (iv) pointless or avoidable scenes of violence, cruelty and horror, scenes of violence primarily intended to provide entertainment and such scenes as may have the effect of desensitising or dehumanising people are not shown;
  • (v) scenes which have the effect of justifying or glorifying drinking are not shown;
  • (vi) Scenes tending to encourage, justify or glamorise drug addiction are not shown;
  • (vi-a) Scenes tending to encourage, justify or glamorise consumption of tobacco or smoking are not shown;
  • (vii) human sensibilities are not offended by vulgarity, obscenity or depravity;
  • (viii) such dual meaning words as obviously cater to baser instincts are not allowed;
  • (ix) scenes degrading or denigrating women in any manner are not presented;
  • x) scenes involving sexual violence against women like attempt to rape, rape or any form of molestation or scenes of a similar nature are avoided, and if any such incidence is germane to the theme, they shall be reduced to the minimum and no details are shown
  • xi) scenes showing sexual perversions shall be avoided and if such matters are germane to the theme they shall be reduced to the minimum and no details are shown
  • xii) visuals or words contemptuous of racial, religious or other groups are not presented
  • xiii) visuals or words which promote communal, obscurantist, anti-scientific and anti-national attitude are not presented
  • xiv) the sovereignty and integrity of India is not called in question;
  • xv) the security of the State is not jeopardized or endangered
  • xvi) friendly relations with foreign States are not strained;
  • xvii) public order is not endangered
  • xviii) visuals or words involving defamation of an individual or a body of individuals, or contempt of court are not presented
    EXPLANATION: Scenes that tend to create scorn, disgrace or disregard of rules or undermine the dignity of court will come under the term ”Contempt of Court” : and
  • xix) national symbols and emblems are not shown except in accordance with the provisions of the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950 (12 of 1950)

That one about pre-marital sex

And this is basically all there is in terms of legal ruling on what movies can and cannot do.

Curiously enough, one of the most-cited rules of Bollywood is no longer in effect. That’s the rule that prohibits the display of sex-scenes or even intimacy between a man and a woman unless it is stated that they are married. This used to be a thing, though, from what I can tell until the mid-naughties at least. However, as you can see in the most recent revision of the CBFC’s code, this seems to have been taken out. That doesn’t mean this rule isn’t observed anymore. Watch your Bollywood romances. There’s quick and dirty weddings when people elope, and when two characters are married, then you’ll see something like a wedding picture in the background.

Naturally, you could file premarital sex as well as the rarely occuring exchange of physical affection in any kind of shape, way or form under the blanket-term of “offending decency”, which is probably why it almost never happens. That’s just the thing with those vague laws. They can be applied at the censor’s own discretion. However, kissing and stuff occurs at the weirdest times. There’s a pretty horrible but somewhat infamous Superman knockoff made in Bollywood in the 1980s. And all of a sudden, not-Clark-Kent kisses no-Lois-Lane. Who’d have thought.

This is the bit mentioned above that is actually good for storytelling. Because it avoids one of the most annoying clichés of Hollywood – the one where the plot comes to a grinding halt just because the pretty male lead and his equally pretty female counterpart must now kiss. There’s a planet to save and they have to kiss. Cue saxophone music and they’re in bed. Brilliant. This won’t happen in Bollywood any time soon.

A short look at the other rules (the tl;dr)

I don’t blame you if you didn’t read all the legalese up there. Here’s the short version of it. Most of it is rather unproblematic and not too different from Hollywood.

  • Don’t harm any children, don’t beat them or kill them. Children are not criminals.
  • Don’t harm any animals
  • No racism, derogatory terms or bullying of minorities.
  • Don’t glorify smoking, drinking or drugs
  • No gratuitous violence, blood or gore.
  • No sexual innuendo. A short note on that one: This is ignored often, it seems. Innuendo is everywhere. Not to mention that the song-and-dance numbers are often a placeholder for “Now they’re having sex” complete with seductive dance moves. And everyone’s fully aware of it, from what research has shown.
  • No rape, no fetishes, no sex unless absolutely necessary and vital to the plot. If that’s the case, then there’s no details.

These are the ones that you can look at and go “Yeah, sure, why not?” because it’s not vital to the world that we get a Bollywood version of Trainspotting. But let’s keep in mind here that these are not guidelines. This is the law. If you’re a moviemaker and you want your movie to be shown, you must abide by those rules.

And then there are the problematic ones. The ones that should give any self-respecting democracy the chills and the thought of “We can’t forbid that”, because it is the right of every citizen to have the freedom of speech, the freedom of opinion and the liberty to express said opinion but having to take responsibility for it as well. And those really bad laws are:

  • You do not question the sovereignty and integrity of India.
  • You are not allowed to endanger the state or piss off other states.
  • You must not disturb the public order.
  • Do not question the law.

So no political drama out of India. There’s no chance of there being a documentary produced that chronicles the social struggle of people there. That is reserved for the Swiss who have made a documentary called Millions Can Walk.

As long as these laws are in place, there will not be an Indian version of V for Vendetta. No Fight Club. No Frost/Nixon, no JFK, nothing dealing with the Bhopal disaster or any other social issue in a fictitious context.

So… Why?

Naturally, this legislation has been questioned by both domestic and foreign filmmakers and audiences. At some point, the Indian Supreme Court released a statement, explaining the whys and wherefores. It reads:

Film censorship becomes necessary because a film motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have a strong impact on the minds of the viewers and can affect emotions. Therefore, it has as much potential for evil as it has for good and has an equal potential to instil or cultivate violent or good behaviour. It cannot be equated with other modes of communication. Censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary.

About Dom

Possessing nigh-encyclopaedic knowledge when it comes to comic books and movies, Dom is one of the co-founders of the Uncanny Book-Club. He also enjoys movies, and going to the cinema.

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