By Tabu Agarwal:
It was just another lazy afternoon when I was watching a rerun of one of the episodes of my favourite sitcom, Friends, when I heard the beeping of the word ‘boobies’ throughout the entire episode. In the 21st century, it is hard to believe that the ‘watchdogs’ of our Indian society would believe the audience to be this easily excitable when exposed to this word. Not only is it inconvenient for the viewers to watch the same, but it also downrightly rejects their level of intelligence.
Recently, the English subtitles for British and American TV content broadcast on Indian channels have been subjected to ridiculous self-censorship for fear of a government confrontation and crackdown. Censorship at this scale began in 2011, when the Indian Broadcasters Federation created a set of self-regulatory guidelines that all non-news channels would have to abide by, because unlike films, television shows don’t go through a censor board before being aired. If viewers are offended by the content, they can make a complaint, and the result of these complaints can be quite disastrous for channels. ‘The Dirty Picture’, a film about soft porn actress Silk Smitha that starred Vidya Balan, came in for 59 cuts, but still couldn’t make the ‘cut’ for television.
Words like ‘Fucker’, ‘Sex’, ‘Jesus’, et cetera that are all deemed offensive by one channel or the other are either entirely muted, or changed in subtitles during an episode airing nowadays. For instance, unless and until the content show is seen under the light of ‘education’, IBF guidelines are against the showing of nudity, and even the depiction of movements of sexual activity. This made watching the early seasons of Game of Thrones on Indian television next to impossible, which prompted viewers to turn to the Internet and find out what exactly followed up whilst the scene was censored. Similarly, a scene in Sherlock series (Season 2) involving nudity was considered problematic for Indian television viewers as it was considered too ‘explicit’ and ‘objectionable’ for them. This doesn’t pertain to just HBO and BBC and foreign channel content. Even the lovemaking scene between Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta in the film ‘Salaam Namaste’ was removed from the televised version of the movie.
In one of the shows, the word ‘breast cancer’ was censored and replaced with the word ‘chest’. In another instance, in a conversation about breast cancer on an English channel the station inserted an asterisk to partially mask the word ‘breast’ in the subtitles, even though we could hear it on screen, resulting in unintentional bloopers.
However, what needs to be questioned is – should the public be shielded away from terms like breast cancer and rape when they are sadly becoming an everyday reality in our country? It is strange that this needs to said out loud, but cancer is a serious issue; not one to be trivialized by censorship. There are reports that breast cancer cases in India are likely to double by the year 2015. These are living, breathing people battling a life-threatening illness; one that needs to be understood and empathized with. And, by trying to treat it off as a disease or something to be ashamed of is washing away the entire purpose of using television as a medium to educate the masses about social issues. Similarly, depictions of rape on screen can be powerful; shocking, yes, but effective when handled correctly, and television shouldn’t shy away from it.
The entire practice is done in the name of protecting the kids from stumbling across any ‘objectionable’ content on television. More than the television’s responsibility to do so, it is parents who should be looking into what their children should be exposed to. As a free adult, if I want to see two adults talking about sex as openly as they do in the West, I don’t think I should be deprived of that. Moreover, this kind of censorship is only resulting in producing a generation of people who would have skewed notions about important issues, and will look down upon such problems. India will become a country where nobody will talk about sex and diseases, sex-related health issues and drug problems will conveniently be swept under the carpet, hidden from all eyes instead of being understood and addressed. Such activities will only produce couch potatoes who will still consider sex a dirty word, and believe skin show in public is still something good girls do not engage in, and despite legal cognizance, homosexuals are by and large still not acceptable and normal. After receiving numerous complaints from viewers as well as the National Commission for Women and social activists who accused the channels of showing explicit content, shows like Bigg Boss and Rakhi ka Insaaf were allowed to only air between 11 PM and 5 AM.
As India is trying to sell itself as a global power today, Indian censorship in television, practised through arbitrary laws and rules, will serve to turn the clock back on the country’s social and economic progress. India has around 125 million people who speak English, out of which many in urban India follow American shows and watch Hollywood movies.
Those who have been ardent followers of such series and Hollywood movies have witnessed a major turmoil in this scenario even more so after a Hindu Nationalist Party formed the government. There must be uniformity in the exercise of deciding what needs to be aired or bleeped on television. Hundreds of millions of people in India go to temples, being exposed to sex and nudity through the carvings, drawings etc. This is acceptable, but the fighting scenes in X-Men: Days of Future Past were deemed unsuitable for airing? By resorting to inconsistent and clumsy self-censorship, snipping scenes that are central to a show’s plot, raising serious questions about the audience’s mentality, is this the first step in the Government’s growing sense of insecurity?