By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Indian cinema is passing through turbulence. Censorship and piracy have been crippling artistic freedom and business for a while now.
The newly constituted Central Board of Film Certification has been introducing rules that will only stifle the country’s cinema. Or stifle it further.
Already, the need to insert warnings against liquor and cigarette smoking in any scene that show them has stopped some internationally celebrated directors, such as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, from sending their movies to India.
There are other helmers who just cannot exhibit their works, because the Board will not allow explicitly sexual content to be screened. Fifty Shades of Grey is one recent casualty. And, forget films like Nymphomaniac by Danish auteur Lars Von Trier.
In recent weeks, the Board — most of whose members have a strong Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP/a Hindu nationalist outfit) affiliation — has said that it will not pass any cuss word, and the list of this is pretty long.
On top of this, there is an extra-constitutional censorial attitude that a few rightwing political parties flaunt and flaunt brazenly.
Even many years ago, when the BJP was not in power in New Delhi as it now is, some political organisations vandalised theatres screening Deepa Mehta’s Fire arguing that the subject of lesbianism in it was against the letter and spirit of Indian culture. In later years, some political bigwigs and godmen went to the extent of terming homosexuality a disease.
Tamil Nadu has its own peculiar prejudices. Any film that has anything even remotely connected with Sri Lanka is no no. Sadly, even a wonderful work like With You Without You by Prasanna Vithanage was not given screening rights in the State — even though it was not anti-Tamil by any stretch of imagination.
(Tamil Nadu feels that Sri Lankan Tamils have had a raw deal from the majority Sinhala population on the island, and so even those movies made by Indians that talk about Sri Lanka are not welcome. Santosh Sivan’s Inam and Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Cafe could not be shown in the State.)
All these formidable roadblocks have forced the Indian film industry to rally around and demand changes in what it feels is an archaic set of rules. Over the years, I have been writing in my columns that censorship is a medieval practice which needs to be replaced with classification — where movies will be categorised — age-wise — according to their content. There can be works suitable for 12-plus, for 15-plus, for 18-plus and so on. And the Board can be renamed as the Central Board of Film Classification.
Shravan Kumar, the Chief Executive Officer of the Board, said this system would be close to the movie rating method followed in the United States and many other parts of the world to determine a movie’s suitability for audiences, based on its content”
Nothing can be more ideal than this. For, filmmakers would no longer have to bother about the scissors.
However, all this appears hunky-dory on paper. The actual implementation may not be as easy as it seems. In India, in spite of it being the largest film producer in the world (some 1300-odd a year), men who create the magic of movies are forever looking for a chance to increase their ticket sales, and a film certified for 18-plus at once limits the market. So, there has always been a clamour to clinch a Universal tag.
Also, theatres desperate to maximise profits in these times of rising costs look the other way when kids walk into an adult movie.
Adding to all this is the fact that the business of cinema is not in great shape today. To begin with, there are too many films popping out of the cans and too few screens to accommodate them. Tamil Nadu is a classic example of this.
On an average, every Friday witnesses four films fighting for space and audience attention. Obviously, most movies do not run beyond a week. They are no allowed to in any case, because there is long queue of films waiting to rush into the projector room.
Piracy is another bane. Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu enjoy this dubious distinction of being the nation’s piracy capital. Often, a pirated copy of a movie can be found on the very day of its theatrical opening. It is possible that film labs are hand in glove with pirates.
It is also possible that the Middle East is a source; most Indian movies are released there a day earlier — on Thursdays — before they are in India, on Fridays. These 24 hours are enough to get illegal discs floating across India.
Given this growing menace, Tamil Nadu producers and exhibitors have been toying with the idea of suspending new film releases for about three months. This, they feel, will push pirates out of business.
But I am not so sure this will work. Piracy is huge business in India, and it can sustain itself for many months. What may be more effective is to release DVDs of movies, a couple of weeks after they hit the screens. Also, the pricing must be realistic or otherwise pirates will score by offering their illegal disks for a fifth of the official rate.
Helmers are also toying with the idea of using Direct-to-Home services. Cheran has just established his company, Cinema 2 Home. The firm will help small budget movies find an exhibition outlet; DVDs of new films will be aired through the D-to-H system, and Cheran has already released the first work.
Earlier, Kamal Hassan tried doing this with his Viswroopam, but failed because there was enormous opposition to the scheme from producers and exhibitors — who felt that the scheme will eat into their profits. Maybe it will, but the D-To-H is a far better prospect than handing over a considerable part of earnings to the likes of Long John Silver.
*Gautaman Bhaskaran has been writing on Indian and world cinema for over three decades, and may be e-mailed at [email protected]
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