William Mazzarella, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, has authored Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity (2013) and co-edited Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction (2009). Currently in Mumbai to talk about film censorship in India, Mazzarella on how censorship is used as a tool for publicity. Excerpts from an interview:
What are the guidelines that the Central Bureau of Film Certification (CBFC) claims to follow?
Since the colonial period, lists have existed about what is not allowed. Over the decades, these lists have been updated to deal with present-day concerns. But a lot of things shown in films cannot be covered by lists — things you feel or sense as emergent possibilities in a scene. That’s why censors clamp down on things that are not necessarily on the list but let through things that are on it. And the examining committee’s decisions are based on the way they experience the film in the moment. It’s one of the things that makes censorship unpredictable.
If censorship is based on perceptions that are intangible, what’s the point of having guidelines?
A lot of people say there’s no point in censorship, given that content on a medium like the internet cannot be monitored. But censorship is not actually about watertight regulation. It’s more about the opportunity for authorities to exert power. When they suddenly clamp down on something or behave in an otherwise unpredictable manner, it is just a visible show of power.
What are your thoughts on the debate about whether India should shift from its certification system to one of ratings to increase transparency?
People here have a very starry-eyed view of the way a rating system works. It’s pretty clear that the motion picture rating system in the US is shadowy — you basically have anonymous people in Los Angeles reviewing films, making suggestions and demanding cuts. People here believe the rating system in the US is democratic, inclusive and rational, which is not true.
Why is there a discrepancy between what is censored in international movies versus Indian movies?
Often certain things are let through in English or foreign language movies that wouldn’t have gotten through in a Hindi film or even in the Hindi dubbed version. This is because there’s an assumption that different kinds of audiences have different levels of vulnerability. Besides, people who serve on advisory panels are supposed to come from a cross section of society, but they are generally from the middle class.
What about popular protests that demand the censorship of certain scenes or films?
When people protest against films, it’s a competition for attention. Sometimes, these protests are also the outcome of political power struggles. In Bombay of the 1990s, for instance, the Shiv Sena sent their supporters to make a big public demonstration about the Deepa Mehta’s Fire, at a time when there was a negotiation of power going on between the state government in Maharashtra and the central government.
How much has censorship changed since the colonial period?
There’s a perception that in the colonial period, politics was the focus of censorship, now it’s about sex. But this perceived divide is an exaggeration. In the 1920s, the issue about intimacy in foreign films was huge. An elaborate censorship system was put in place in 1920. Things haven’t changed much since.
William Mazzarella, in conversation with comedian Anuvab Pal, will discuss censorship in India at the Godrej India Culture Lab, Mumbai, on December 18.