By Ashni Dhaor:
For almost a year now, television shows across networks have been periodically running a strip that urges viewers to voice their complaints regarding the content, if any. Although the shows are highly censored before-hand, particularly the American television shows, the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) invites complaints and expects ire from the Indian viewers too.
Censorship in India involves the suppression or other public communication, raising issues of freedom of speech, which is nominally protected by the Indian Government. Here, I would like to put light on the issue of censorship of the American television shows being broadcast in India. Television channels like Zee Café, Star World, FX, to name a few, have been broadcasting some of America’s edgiest shows, but without the edge.
How would you like the shows ‘Mad Men’ or ‘Californication’, produced on the theme of drugs, sex and debauchery, without any of it? Well, the idea seems appalling. It’s just as perplexing for the audience to watch David Duchovny’s “Californication” lead Hank Moody, to disappear into a bedroom with a beautiful woman and then suddenly appearing in a disjointed scene from later in the episode. The latest addition to the list is ‘Homeland’, which is based on the theme of Iraq-America war, wherein, the obvious violence is censored which is the basic taste of the show. More absurd is that words like ‘sex’, ‘gay’, ‘beef’ or even so, ‘mosque’ are censored. While some channels completely bleep out the word and put asterisk (*) in the subtitle, others replace the word with its softer synonym in the subtitle. Hence, few of the many instances can be that ‘sex’ becomes ‘intercourse’; ‘gay’ becomes ‘queer’. In the process, the sense is totally lost. For comedy shows like ‘Two and a Half Men’ or ‘Friends’, the word bleeped out is many a times the punch line for the episode and the Indian audience is baffled on why the laughing track is being played in the background. For example, in an episode of comedy hit sitcom, ‘Friends’, the character Rachel mistakenly makes pastries out of beef and the events turn out hilarious, but the Indian audience wouldn’t know because the word ‘beef’ was bleeped out.
Examples like these are innumerable, which makes the younger audience turn to the internet for online episodes which they are able to enjoy and more importantly, understand since there are no bleeps. People who watch the American shows on Indian television find this blatant blanket censorship counter-productive in shows and films, and news channels outright mind-numbing, offensive and insulting these days.
This baseless censorship has made India a ‘nanny state’, where media content is approved for public viewing beforehand. People have raised concerns about what this regime of censorship means for the freedom of expression. While the young and hip audiences that attract advertising dollars want foreign imports, no broadcaster wants to upset conservative viewers or attract government ire. Broadcasting these shows, while editing them into confusion, underscores the fine line entertainment companies like the NewsCorp-owned Star and FX are trying to walk to attract urban youth while not angering their more traditional parents. Hence they resolve to self censorship concluding to taking away the feel from the shows. It is understood that violence, nudity, obscenity and sexual content needs to be censored, but taking away the theme of the shows by doing so only results in a poor viewing experience.
Debates over censorship of television content have been on for years now. While the government justifies these on the basis of ‘cultural sensitivity’, their repeated attempts to advocate conservatism not only shows how deeply insecure our culture has become of taboo subjects, but how uncomfortable we get in our own skins when confronted with love and sex. Nevertheless, young Indians who have embraced Levis, McDonalds and MTV are hungry for Western television. Consequently, people get really curious, and want to get to the real stuff, and then they hit the download button on illegal torrent websites to watch shows.
For television programs, the viewer who holds the remote is the censor. It is up to them whether they want to see the program or not. It’s like assuming that parents are not responsible enough to put curbs on their children. An average Indian household manages to bring up their children by exercising some sort of personal censorship, despite all of it. In India, where every citizen has the right to freedom of expression, nothing can be completely banned.
As India positions itself as a global leader in the 21st century, one of its greatest strengths is its loud, boisterous and often frenzied democracy. The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental pillar of our democracy, and efforts at curbing this right through arbitrary laws and rules will only serve to turn back the clock on the country’s social and economic progress. Mahatma Gandhi once advised a newly independent India to pursue a path of spiritual and inner purity embodied in the principles: “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Surely a state that censors and curbs the free flow of expression isn’t what he had in mind.