The most facepalm worthy news I recently came across was the talk around Christian Bale-Matt Damon movie Ford V Ferrari being asked to blur out alcohol glasses and bottles and beep out the word ‘bitch’, even when the actors are spitting out commonplace phrases like ‘son of a bitch’. Never mind that most of the audience who would go to watch this movie regularly rely on some liquid courage to get them through the weekend and probably use the word 'fuck' liberally. This news would’ve been hilarious were it not such a tragic representation of the times we live in.
Censorship has left its blurry black lines on Indian films and television shows since probably the inception ofIndian entertainment. But with technology being more entrenched in our lives than it ever was before, and the government willing to grant itself vast new powers to suppress internet content, it just seems more personal and prevalent. Our Netflix and Amazon Prime Video favourites might soon be under the scanner, we’ve been told to keep inflammatory content off even our private WhatsApp chats, social media nudity policies are dictating what part of the body—especially the female body—we can expose, and people’s ‘objectionable’ social media posts are even leading to them getting arrested.
It begs the question: Are we becoming less—dare we say the word—tolerant? And are young Indians feeling like it’s hitting too close to home? We asked around.
Rohan, 22, analyst
VICE: Hey Rohan! Do you think you feel the effects of censorship more nowadays?
Rohan: I don't know about whether it affects us more these days, but I can say that censorship is definitely still prevalent and insanely frustrating, even though it should now be a thing of the past. The CBFC is just an absolute shitshow, I don't know a lot about Prasoon Joshi, but the previous guy, Pahlaj Nihalani, was just an absolute joke. Banning words like "Bombay" (?????), "virgin" and "intercourse" is not only nonsensical but also just hindering the ability of a film to tell a basic story or even just incorporate basic dialogue. The absolute worst was when the movie Lipstick Under My Burkha wasn’t allowed to pass because it was apparently too “lady oriented”. Give me a fucking break, that’s misogyny at its peak. I fail to understand why a movie that's been given an A rating needs any cuts at all, and who the hell gave this fucking idiotic organisation the right to be the moral police? Makes the entire country seem so backward, it's sickening.
What are you worried the willingness to easily censor is going to come for next?
Considering how bad it’s been lately, with the government even arresting people for posting a Facebook status that goes against something they’ve done, I won’t be surprised if movies about Valentine’s Day are also given the axe since the current government has a history of forming alliances with ridiculous parties that say things like holding hands on Valentine's Day is wrong and have their moral police out searching for those who engage in such acts.
Shrishti, 23, producer
VICE: How’s it going Shrishti? Do you think censorship of films and social media is more prevalent in India now than it was before?
Shrishti: Honestly, CBFC asking to blur out alcohol bottles or glasses is not that shocking or surprising, and this kind of backward thinking has been around since the 1990s, like when they refused to screen Fire because it depicted a same-sex relationship or the time they said they won’t show sex scenes with women in control which is absolutely ridiculous, so I don’t think that’s something new. But I think given that social media is being increasingly cleaned up, it definitely feels like censorship is more prevalent nowadays. I think with social media, any kind of dissent has just become more tangible, and the way in which we interact and communicate is now almost completely through the internet, which we don’t control and is controlled by big corporations who very often, as we’ve seen in recent cases, tend to combine with the government to curb voices.
Especially after the Ayodhya verdict, it hits you even more because you realise the way in which the censorship plays out is that the rules are always defined by bodies in power, like governments who tend to side with injustice in a sense, where expressing dissent is seen as adding to the chaos or violence, which is really not the case. So, it feels very suffocating, now more than ever. So yes it does feel prevalent nowadays because our means of dissent has shifted to being completely online on platforms controlled by either the government or corporations who tend to side with the government.
What do you think is the way forward for free speech?
Hopefully, I think we’re also moving towards forms of social media which are more people-led and democratic like Mastodon, which is a free and open-sourced social media platform that many people are picking over Twitter nowadays. So I think that it’s a positive development and I take refuge in that.
Khushali, 23, digital audience developer
VICE: Hey Khushali, have you personally felt any of the effects of censorship in India?
Khushali: In my experience, I’ve noticed that streaming platforms like YouTube, which are meant to be real, raw representations of what the user uploads, have algorithms that keep a close eye on any kind of explicit content, whether it’s partial nudity, swear words or even just someone showing the middle finger. Even on other social media like Facebook, this kind of content is being increasingly demonetised, which means that its reach is reducing drastically.
How does this affect social media users? Should we be worried?
This automatically leads to the creator being more careful about the kind of content they put out and I feel all these algorithmic changes are leading to a culture of self-censoring, which isn’t the greatest thing in the world for free speech.
What are you afraid is going to get blurred out next?
I think any kind of skin showing is going to be a point of contention next. Whether it’s a bikini or a new skimpy fashion trend, I won’t be surprised if the same people censoring our social media start claiming that even these go against our culture.
Sujay, 27, filmmaker
VICE: What’s up, Sujay? Have you noticed a spike in censorship in recent times?
Sujay: Yes, censorship has definitely increased post-2014. It seems a long time ago given everything our country's going through, but the disaster that was Pahlaj Nihalani shouldn't be forgotten. His successor Prasoon Joshi isn't much better either, with random words being muted and scenes being cut. As a filmmaker myself, the unrefined chopping during these cuts by the censor board gives me a full-body cringe.
So what do you think is next on the chopping board?
I mean, if they can do something as silly as blur out drinking glasses from a film, what’s to stop them from saying that Indian films shouldn’t mention booze at all? Soon the only kind of drinks that people might have in Indian films will be Bournvita or kheer if things continue to go the way they are.
Anushree, 21, social media executive
VICE: Hey Anushree, what are your thoughts on the recent reports of censorship in India?
Anushree: I don't like that OTT platforms are being asked to be mindful about their content because authorities are worried that anyone can access them. I mean, that’s literally the function of the parental control options that are available to restrict kids from watching explicit content. As for films, the censorship on slang words and explicit content when R-rated films like Insidious and John Wick 3 release in India is really annoying, especially because it disrupts the movie-watching experience when Hollywood films have certain scenes important to the storyline cut out just because of our censorship guidelines.
As someone who promotes films on social media, most of which are Hollywood ones, it’s difficult when we have to adapt foreign content for Indian censorship standards. Half the time you end up losing the humour or essence of story just to keep up with their standards.
What are you worried they’re going to start censoring next?
Given the way things are going, I think now they’re even going to start censoring shirtless scenes in movies. Unless any of the three Khans are involved, of course.
Shivang, 21, student
VICE: Is present-day censorship an issue we should be worried about?
Shivang: Yes, I feel like the content is being increasingly censored and I think it’s all about the perception the government has, because they’re the ones who control the CBFC. They gave 99 cuts to Udta Punjab, but the movie still turned out pretty good, while at the same time they didn’t allow Black Friday, a film on the 1993 Mumbai bombings to release at all at first. I think that anything you make or produce against the government is going to be streamlined and chopped away.
What are you worried is going to be beeped out next?
I think any kind of religious or political sentiment that goes against the government is on the firing line.
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