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Television censorship
Is anyone keeping a watch?

By APARNA JOSHI & HETAL ADESARA

Posted on 4 November 2003

 

It was okay till the moral police did not raise a hue and cry. But when they did, an official of the Delhi chapter of the censor board was transferred some months ago. Reason: He had given a 'U' certificate to DJ Doll's Kaanta Laga music video. The government, which still controls top appointments at the Censor Board, felt that Kaanta Laga was too hot for the Indian television audience to be given a 'U' certificate and should have been given an 'A' certificate that would have made it slightly difficult for satellite channels to play this music video at all times.

Now, newly appointed chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification Anupam Kher too, has made clear his intentions about not letting sleaze go unchecked on television. But there's a catch. Kher's initial remarks also dwelt on the plethora of relationships that Indian soap characters get into, a trend that according to the new CBFC chairman was disturbing.

Although Kher later retracted, claiming the offhand remarks were made casually, the statements thrust the grey area of Indian television censorship into the glare of public scrutiny. While most Indian broadcasters (including broadcasters uplinking from outside) do adhere to indigenously developed codes of programming conduct, there is a singular lack of a governing body that could monitor programming, check lapses and report erring broadcasters.

In the absence of such filters, programming is mostly at the will of broadcasters. Be it an 'A' (adult) rated film, supposed to be shown only in the late night slot but repeated in the afternoons, or a Chadti Jawani video aired at all times during the day, viewers are at the mercy of the broadcaster. While pubcaster Doordarshan maintains decorum with sanitised shows and social messaging; channels like Trendz, AXN, SS Music and Zee MGM are not bound by such moral considerations.

Often, extreme violence, skin show and licentious conduct aired blithely on television go unreported. Industry insiders insist that though the censor laws are uniform, a lot of film producers and music video makers obtain censor certificates from South India. Unlike in the UK, where there is a watershed mark of 9 pm, beyond which adult content can be aired, Indian broadcasters are not bound by any such regulation.

While a channel like Zee Cinema in the UK has to apologise to the Independent Television Commission (ITC) for mistakenly airing gory scenes from an uncut version of the Salman Khan starrer Baaghi, in India it is not bound by much censorship, thanks to the lack of a definite governing body.

Producer-director and ex-censor board chairperson Asha Parekh is one of those who feel that television needs a censor board. "I am appalled by the lack of decency. Just take a look at the music videos our kids are watching. Don't get me wrong here, I don't want to see women wrapped in six yards of sari but I want the programming to be a bit more tasteful. Even the so-called serials that showcase Indian tradition and culture are full of extramarital affairs. And since parents aren't doing the screening, there should be somebody to police it," she maintains.

Which brings us to the touchy issue of a creative license in the business of television software. While Kher and Parekh insist the extramarital relationships are detrimental to viewers, others like veteran TV personality Vinta Nanda insist the veto finally rests with the viewer who wields the remote. TV tracker and columnist Shailaja Bajpai has a point when she says that censorship guidelines of the country the channels are uploaded from, apply. Which leaves most channels out of the Indian censorship bracket.

Aroona Irani: "We don't show anything against society norms"

Des Mein Niklla Hoga Chand producer Aroona Irani defends the broadcaster, however. "I really don't see the need for censor board for the Hindi entertainment channels. We don't usually show anything against the society norms. As for the current status of censorship norms, all the channels that I have worked with have their own guidelines, which I think are fair and competent enough."

While Star has its Standards and Practices diktat from Hong Kong, which screens content for imitable behaviour, incestous relationships and child abuse, B4U insists on content check for all videos shown on air from the music companies or producers, especially in the cases where the channel feels that it can hurt viewer sensitivities. It also has a Quality Control team within the programming section that filters the content.

Ravi Nair: "B4U does not shy away from regulatory interventions"

Says B4U Television Network vice president Ravi Nair, "Most developed countries have programming and content codes governed by independent bodies. There is no harm in regulatory interventions, as even feature films have it. So why not television content?" He further adds, "B4U does not shy away from any kind of regulatory interventions as the channel is meant for family viewing and is pretty keen that viewer sensitivity is respected."

Amar Deb - "V adheres to stringent norms"

Even so, videos of Chadti Jawaani and Kaanta Lagaa have been making the rounds of all music channels at all hours. Channel [V] from the Star stable too, insists that every video that comes in goes through a system of checks and balances before it is passed. Says the channel's head honcho Amar Deb, "We have extremely stringent norms. We have an internal audit system which is called S&P - Standards and Practices. A music video only plays on air if it passed by them. We always insist on a 'U' certificate if we find the content to be slightly strange."

The consensus among music channels is that censorship should be tackled at the grass root level, that is, with the people who make these videos and not the channel that is airing them. Hence there needs to be a regulatory policy with every record label as they are the ones who make these videos.

Who draws the fine line between vulgarity and sensuality?

Deb however, points out that they do not leave it just to the music companies on this score. Channel [V] edits suggestive parts out of videos not only with vulgarity but also things like smoking, alcohol and violence. Says Deb, "Extreme violence, vulgarity are definitely a no no. But then again, there is a difference between vulgarity and sensuality. So we must be mature enough to appreciate the difference."

So the question in point is - who draws the fine line between vulgarity and sensuality?

There have been a couple of videos that have pushed the limit. It is interesting to note that some of these controversial videos came with a 'U' certificate from the censor board itself to the various channels.

So is the case with scenes of violence in movies as well as on the news channels. A furore over the dramatisation of a rape in the capital on Aaj Tak recently died without any policy review, apology or censor board action.

'Kucch bhi ho sakta hai' on Indian television

While HBO airs a sanitised version of Sex and the City, bowing to Indian sensibilities, advertisers are not an equally considerate lot. The DSP Black 'Kucch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai' ad raised the hackles of many for portraying the steadily plunging neckline of a female model and was finally pulled off air. Despite government regulation, however, surrogate advertising for both liquor and tobacco continue unabated on some channels, like SS Music.

An absence of a stringent code on advertising content saw an ad for the Fair and Lovely cream demeaning the dusky girl child as not having the capacity to earn bread for the family. The ad was pulled out only after a women's organisation took the matter to the highest echelons of the government. The Advertising Standards Council of India continues to be a toothless tiger, waiting for more powers that will allow it to be stricter with advertisers.

A few months ago, a Balaji serial Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii too had to apologise for an episode that showed a foetal sex determination test favouring a male child, but only after the Maharashtra Women's Commission insisted on one.

A still from an AXN show featured on its India website

Content on Indian television, in terms of language, skin show and violent scenes has been becoming liberal since the days of Only Doordarshan. Fierce competition for eyeballs, the elusive advertiser and the fickle ratings add to the desire to pump in content that entices, if not necessarily, educates.

Judging from Kher's stated position on the matter, how long such "enticing" content will continue to be aired is a moot point. According to Virendra Singla, regional officer, Censor Board Film Certification (CBFC) Mumbai (he spoke on behalf of Kher): "Mr Kher and I had a discussion yesterday afternoon on how we need to make television more family oriented. We came to the conclusion that all programmes need to go through the Cable Act."

"The Cable act was amended in 2000 to meet this need, but unfortunately, the implementation has not materialised. We are the certifying agency. The enforcing agencies (collectors, police, etc) will have to do this. They have often cited that they have other more important things to attend to, even when it comes to putting the Cinematographer's Act in practice in case of movies. But now, considering the growing vulgarity on the small screen, we are taking this issue up with the highest authorities in the government - that X-raying every programme under the Cable Act also becomes their priority."

Successive Censor Board chairpersons have vowed, initially, to purge Indian television of its ills and bring order to the chaos. While hardly any steps have been taken, any incumbent wishing to take on the responsibility would also have to walk the fine line between cutting out the crass, ensuring strict timetables and stepping into creative territory. If Kher manages to do that, it will be a major milestone for the industry.

At the end of the day though, what is required is a set of standards that govern broadcasting. The ITC in the UK is an excellent model that is worth following. And till such time as there is a framework of rules, it will remain left to the perceptions and personal prejudices of whoever is at the helm of the Censor Board to set forth his or her agenda.

Also read:

Close watch: TV in most countries is closely monitored


"TV channels have disappointed me by and large" - R.S. Prasad

"Once you start censoring, there is no end to it" - Shailaja Bajpai

"Censorship in India is an eyewash" - Vinta Nanda

 

 

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