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Indian Cinema Straddles Centuries, Pushes for Change

As filmmakers strive to push the envelope, censors pop up from everywhere

The winds of change are blowing across Indian cinema, particularly in the contentious ratings process. Films need clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) before they can be exhibited in Indian theaters. Lately, however, state governments, political parties, pressure groups and even individuals filing public-interest suits can stall or scupper a film.

This year alone, Kamal Hassan’s Tamil and Hindi “Vishwaroopam” and Mandeep Benipal’s Punjabi “Sadda haq,” both cleared by the CBFC, were waylaid by state orgs.

“Vishwaroopam,” a spy thriller set in the U.S. and Afghanistan, was due for a Jan. 25 release but ran afoul of Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu state protesting against the portrayal of Islam in the film, leading the state to ban it. Hassan described the ban as “cultural terrorism.” The film was released in other parts of India and globally on Jan. 25 but released in Tamil Nadu on Feb. 7 after Hassan agreed to mute some dialogue that was seen as objectionable. He didn’t have a choice — the film cost $17.5 million, part of which Hassan raised by mortgaging his home.

Benipal wasn’t so lucky with “Sadda haq,” which looks at the 1980s separatist movement in Punjab from the militants’ p.o.v. Hours before its April 5 release, the film was banned by the states of Punjab and Haryana and the national capital region Delhi, on the grounds that it might cause communal tensions. India’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the film’s actor, producer and writer Kuljinder Singh Sidhu. The film was released in the U.K. and North America and finally last week in all of India.

State governments use the Indian Constitution’s “reasonable restriction” and another provision under state laws in order to ban films, thus creating what India’s Minister for Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari describes as “constitutional tension.”

CBFC chair Leela Samson says her org “is independent and not a political body representing any party. It should be allowed to do its job. State governments are responsible for law and order. They cannot predict a future problem based on a presumption and stop a film’s release. I think politics does impinge upon the freedom of art and is wrong.”

Still, as the country celebrates the centenary of its cinema, there are signs that India is getting more liberal. Kissing, long verboten in Indian films, hardly raises eyebrows. The CBFC also frequently clears films that employ profanity and violence, like “Gangs of Wasseypur” that played at Cannes 2012. And 2013 also sees the release of helmer Rupesh Paul’s “Kamasutra 3D,” the trailers of which show Sherlyn Chopra in the nude.

Paul says, “We haven’t done anything which crosses the guidelines of the Censor Board in the movie but will never approve any imposed amendments. I am ready to go to any extent to fight for justice.” Nevertheless, he’s preparing two cuts, an uncensored version in English for international audiences and a Hindi version where the “content has been altered to cater to the demands of Indian sensibility.”

Tewari sums up the complexity of Indian change: “You have to find a golden mean where you allow a certain amount of creativity but at the same time doesn’t offend social mores, because let’s not forget, that a part of Indiastill lives in the 19th century while another part lives in the 22nd century.

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