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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Dare to be prissy

From mujras to item numbers,movies have served patriarchal interests in the name of ‘entertainment’. The censor board must be alive to these concerns

Written by Krishna Kumar |
May 13, 2011 3:21:56 pm

The appointment of Leela Samson as the chief of the Central Board of Film Certification marks an opportunity for Indian society to engage with a medium on which it has lost all control. Obviously,she faces a formidable task. As an artist and a thinker of aesthetics,she is deeply aware of cinema’s paralysing effect on our collective conscience and will. While the financial and political clout of the film industry has grown over the recent decades,the moral authority of the censor board has diminished. The new urban elites find any form of censorship an encroachment on their right to be entertained. Powered by growing wealth,they have developed a devouring appetite for entertainment. Their victims — who serve as means of entertainment — must shed all hesitation when they are devoured. The victim is supposed to enjoy the opportunity to give pleasure to the master. In order to understand this remarkable arrangement,notice how gender relations are encrypted in the prevailing concept of entertainment,especially cinema.

Cinema inherited an old tradition in which men of status had the right to be entertained and one of the common roles women were supposed to play in the lives of such men was that of an entertainer. This tradition and the frames of perception associated with it have been available to the cinema industry in many genres,and Indian cinema has developed some of these to suit modern audiences. The mujra is a particularly apt example — it is hardly unreasonable to imagine that the genre would have withered away if cinema had not served as a life-support system. The film industry patronised the mujra and found it profitable to insert it in one or another variation. The basic form is simple enough: a woman faces the eyes of an assembly of men whose right to be present in the assembly is based on status and wealth. The free use of a woman’s dancing body surrounded by men has enabled the cinema industry to manufacture an astonishing variety of barbaric ways to choreograph an entertaining occasion.

The lyrics crafted into the visual experience of such occasions have,over the years,taught the wider society to transcend all forms of restraint that the fabric of relationships might have imparted to the language. This year’s award-winning song,Munni badnaam hui,darling tere liye is not without predecessors,but both in its choreography and in the range of Hindi phrases it uses to humiliate women’s dignity,it sets a new standard. The popular liberal view is that Indian society is shedding its sexual inhibitions. But if we accept the risk of being labelled prudish,we might say that the popularity of Munni badnaam hui is a measure of patriarchy’s new resolve to crush Indian women’s demand for being treated with dignity.

Social institutions like the family and kinship are also displaying this tendency. Old forms of subjugation are being revived,along with new strategies involving appeasement and participation of the victim. The iconic value of Munni comes partly from the way it invites young girls and women to join in their own outrage. The culture of item numbers is meant to induce girls to share and contribute to what Lata Mani has called the new body politic. It promises to enslave the female self before it develops any association with a collective identity that could serve as positive inspiration.

As the chief of India’s film censor board,Leela Samson will have the opportunity and mandate to redefine the relationship between cinema and citizens. As a state institution,the censor board has over the decades silently defined childhood and adulthood by dispensing U,A and U/A certificates. It should now make public what attributes other than age it assigns to the “adult” who can watch violence and cruelty of the kind that children are not supposed to do so. Celebrated director Shyam Benegal permitted an urban audience to be entertained with demeaning references to rural people,including women. In a film meant to be educational,no less a personality than Aamir Khan caused mirth by replacing dhan (money) with stan (breasts) and chamatkar (miracle) with balaatkar (rape). Both these films had the censor’s U certificate. It is time that the censor authorities emerged from their darkened preview rooms and met India’s parents in different regions,ensuring sufficient social and economic representation. Censorship is,in principle,an educational voice that dares to interrupt the human craving for fun. For the moment,at least,one feels somewhat relieved that this voice is being represented by a sensitive teacher of the arts.

The author is professor of education at Delhi University

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