Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Why Are Indian Producers Obsessed With Self-Censorship?

A couple weeks ago, Neeraj Ghaywan discovered that his film Masaan had been censored on the Internet. Strangely enough, this wasn't even the theatrically censored version of Masaan that was streaming on Hotstar, the streaming service which had the rights to the content. This was a re-censored version of his film. Masaan was originally rated 'A', or adults only. The re-certified version streaming on Hotstar was rated U/A. To get that certification, it had to go through several cuts.

Anurag Kashyap, one of Masaan's producers, eventually tweeted that it was better to watch a pirated version of the film than to watch the "mutilated" version on Hotstar. That tweet has since been deleted.

As it turns out, Star, the streaming service's parent company, always requires producers to give them a U/A-rated cut of films, so that they can be broadcast on TV. Hotstar uploads this same cut on the internet. 

This is strange, as the Central Board of Film Certification does not require any content on the Internet to be censored (finish reading this post before you oppose this statement). There is no media law in India that regulates cinema ratings online. Therefore, any film can be released uncensored online. But Hotstar chose to avoid using this freedom (as they admit in the HuffPo article linked above). Drishyam Films did not question their requirements and re-certified the film.

Having "Hot" in their name is just misleading at this point.
This sort of unnecessary self-censorship by studios is not new. And it's not even restricted to distribution in India. Hansal Mehta's Shahid, for example, is censored internationally on Netflix. The same applies for a number of Indian films that are available on Netflix. Indian studios are censoring themselves internationally, and on the Internet.

In fact, this censorship can also be seen in the most unexpected of places--The Viral Fever. Their app TVFPlay has the film Angry Indian Goddesses available to rent. This is the same film whose crew uploaded all scenes that were censored by the CBFC online. I asked the film's team why they did so, and they responded vaguely that there was a directive by the government that prohibits public exhibitions of alternate versions of certified films.

AIG's team did not specify what that directive was, so it is very likely that this was just a case of legal conservatism--not being sure if something is illegal, but avoiding it just to be safe. The law they're referring to probably doesn't cover the Internet, but their production house probably just went with the censored version to be safe.

This all is not to say that there is no precedent for uploading uncensored versions of a film online. Rang Rasiya, for example, was heavily censored for theatrical release. However, it is available on Netflix India completely uncensored. Most producers are unwilling to take this harmless risk.

The CBFC did indeed say in a court hearing last month that they will begin requiring all filmmakers to avoid uploading censored scenes on the Internet or distribute them anywhere in India. In response to an RTI I filed, however, the CBFC has said that they haven't implemented this yet.

Indian producers have a moral obligation to protect filmmakers' vision to the best extent that they can. They have forgone this obligation by uploading censored versions of films they own on the internet. They are doing injustice to filmmakers, to the freedom of the Internet, and to consumers.

It's not just the producers alone, though. Streaming services like Hotstar that make it policy to only stream U/A films; lawyers who give conservative advice that has no proper basis; consumers who don't insist on uncut versions of films; and a lack of respect for filmmakers' craft; these factors combine to create an environment of quasi-censorship on the Internet.

As things stand now, the CBFC doesn't need to worry about censoring Internet content--the producers are already doing it for them.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Honor and Dignity: The Problem With India’s Rape Dialogue

The Indian Supreme Court recently overturned the Madras High Court’s decision to allow a rapist to reach an out-of-court settlement with his victim. While the decision is a no-brainer, the words that the judges used to justify their decision are, at best, strange. Here are extracts from the text of the judgement (emphasis mine):
These are offences which suffocate the breath of life and sully the reputation. And reputation, needless to emphasise, is the richest jewel one can conceive of in life. No one would allow it to be extinguished. When a human frame is defiled, the “purest treasure”, is lost. Dignity of a woman is a part of her non-perishable and immortal self and no one should ever think of painting it in clay. There cannot be a compromise or settlement as it would be against her honour which matters the most. It is sacrosanct
To be fair, the judge is clearly well-intentioned and the judgement is correct in its statement that rapes don’t fall under crimes that can be negotiated between the parties involved. However, the wording I have highlighted is worrying because of the aspect of rape that it focuses on: honor and dignity. This problem isn’t new or exclusive to the judgement; Indian dialogue on rape has extensively lamented how rape robs its victims of their “honor and dignity”. Take for instance, this excerpt from Narendra Modi’s speech in the Lok Sabha this June:
Stop analysing the psychology behind rape. The dignity of our mothers and our sisters must be protected. Does it suit us to make comments on such incidents, can we not be quiet? We are playing with the dignity of women.
Various other politicians and activists speak about how rape “destroys” the dignity of its victims; this usually happens in the aftermath of prominent cases, like in 2012. 

This is not a good way to discuss rape. The very meanings of dignity and honor have to do with the respectability of an individual in society. Peppering narratives of rape with these words makes it harder for victims to deal with the trauma and heal.

Generic Times of India rape illustration.
If I were suddenly forced to wear Crocs one day, I would feel brutalized. I would feel lost. I would not feel like stepping out of my room. I would feel uneasy around footwear in general. I would feel like this is the end of it all. As if this wasn’t bad enough already, imagine if anti-Crocs activists started telling me that it was a pity that my dignity and honor have been robbed from me—that my identity as an individual has been permanently tainted by this ugly footwear. 

This is precisely the problem with making reputation and self-respect a part of coverage of rape—no matter how positively intended. They take an incident that is already traumatic to its victims, and adds to their trauma by implying that they are no longer whole, and that it will never fully be possible for them to come back from this completely.

I’m not saying that Crocs are equivalent to rape.
But if I was given a choice between them,
I would not make my choice instantly.
In researching this, I came across a Huffington Post article about the Supreme Court’s judgement which echoed my concern, but it failed to address the exact problem with having these concepts in dialogue on rape: it is distracting—and dangerous. Intertwining these concepts with rape is moot when physical and mental trauma (both immediate and consequent) are the biggest symptoms of rape, not counting the effect it has on the victim’s social circle. Neither of these has anything to with the victim’s respectability.

These words have the power of making masses at large, in addition to victims, believe that there is some sacrosanct candlelight that rape permanently blows out. That in turn, does make rape something that robs victims of respect in society. It is a self-fulfilling narrative that only makes things worse for victims.

Dialogue on rape needs to shift from its sacramental tinge and discuss the crime frankly. It is a traumatizing crime, and as such, it cannot afford to bear old-fashioned and dangerous ideas that damage prospects for recovery. We need sober discussion on recovery, as we do with any other trauma, and this will end with victims having an easier path to recovery. More importantly, it will lead to support from the victim’s community, not abandonment.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Why Indian Satire Fails

The bite of wit has always come from its ability to connect to audiences by using as few words as possible. It also comes from generating a punch that amplifies itself when it meets the reader's preconceptions and insecurities. Satire has globally exploited these qualities to succeed, with The Onion being, arguably, the best popular publication that religiously follows these principles. Take for instance, this headline: Fucking Loser At Movie All By Himself. It's a great marriage of brevity and an assault on a common unspoken insecurity--it hurts so much that it's funny. This is rarely, if ever, the case with Indian satire publications.

To begin with, Indian satirical publications don't have a good track record when it comes to brevity. One of the biggest enemies that sites like Faking News and The Unreal Times have are commas. Commas prove to be useful tools to journalists when reporting a loaded story, but in satire, where being loaded is not a desirable quality, commas prove to be a nail in the coffin to quality. They destroy brevity by crowding the headline and fuzz the point of the satire, effectively reducing the body to a "funny article". Satire's much more than that, and deserves thoughtful and impacting material.

"Vengeful Punctuation Mark Insulted by Blogger, Attacks His
Mock Satirical Headline."
Another failing is that Indian satire rarely strives to depict scenes that hold true outside the country. Every headline has to be distinctly Indian (Modi, IIN, Congress, AAP, rinse and repeat), effectively shutting us out of international attention and global feedback. The Onion may be based in the United States, but most of its headlines are relevant (and relatable) to international audiences, and this is a testament to their editorial quality and rigour. Most importantly, it shows that they have realized that a universalist perspective is needed to make their satire work. The quality that The Onion has achieved is majorly through this principle that Indian publications are yet to let sink in.

One misconception that might arise is that Indian satire's failing can be attributed to the general lack of education and being "well-read". This is not the case. Nobody illustrates this better than The Caravan, a magazine I respect for its thoughtful analyses of everything from the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to the future of Indian comedy. When The Caravan tried its hand at satire, though, it fell flat. See for instance, this cringeworthy annotated version of Jawaharlal Nehru's Tryst with Destiny speech. I can only attribute the lack of byline to the fact that even the author knew that it was a mess of a piece. Another satire headline that they published recently: Modi Government To Set Up A Department Of Clean Chits Under Home Ministry. The headline exudes the classic journalistic excess that respectable satirists avoid with vigour. The length of the article is enough to make not just humorists, but even open-minded readers nauseous.

This goes to show that satire needs professionals too. And not just professionals from related fields like journalism, but people who write humour for a living. The Caravan clearly doesn't cut it when it comes to satire, because that's not what The Caravan is. Incidentally, that is also what the likes of Faking News (which I resist to call Faking Satire) and The Unreal Times are not. This is because they are not run by humorists, but by an uncertain amalgamation of random contributors and journalists. Professionalism does not have exceptions anywhere, satire included. In a field like satire, where professional standards do exist, but are unclear and often-times unwritten, it is difficult for much quality content to exist, let alone get enough attention to keep itself going.

It is best for satire to be left to those who are best at it--comedians, satirists, and humorists. These are the professionals who can actually string together everything about satire that makes it meaningful and enjoyable. Facebook commenters, journalists, and aspiring journalists (like myself) often find their way into Faking News' bylines, and it is best for us to stay away from a genre that is unwieldy for us, and leave it to those who can make it what it deserves to be.