The regulation of female sexuality in film has always been central to defining India’s national identity.
In 1954, 13,000 women of Delhi presented a petition to Jawaharlal Nehru asking him to curb the evil influence of films as it made their children play hooky from school, acquire precocious sex habits, and indulge in vices. Responding to this petition, the prime minister stated: “Films have an essential part to play in the modern world. At the same time it is true that any powerful medium like motion pictures has a good effect and a bad effect. We have to take care therefore that we emphasise the good aspect of it.”
For Nehru, films were linked to the project of modernisation. However, this technological medium and its owners needed to be subordinated to the state so they did not work against the interests of the government. This concept of film censorship, along with the requisite routines and procedures, was established by British colonial administrators ostensibly to guard the morals of the natives and to prevent them from sinking into depravity, religious bigotry and/or ethnic strife.
In 1918, despite objections on grounds of liberty from the Indian members, the country’s legislative council passed the first Cinematographic Act which addressed the licensing of cinema houses and the certification of films declared suitable for public exhibition. In 1920, Boards of Film Censors were set up in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Rangoon. At first, these boards functioned without any rigid rules—later the Bombay Board drew up a list of suggestions in the form of the General Principles of Film Censorship for guiding the Inspectors of Films. These rules were based on the censorship rules drawn up by the British Board of Film Censors.
All through the 1920s, there were strong protests both in England and among English residents of India against the kind of films that were being shown in India. Individuals and citizen groups demanded tighter control and stricter censorship because they were concerned about the way whites were being represented in these films, in particular the sexualised representations of white women. They felt that these representations would be detrimental to England’s moral authority. They also feared that Indian men might think that white women were sexually available and, more importantly accessible to them.
Besides concerns regarding their moral authority and their women’s well-being, the British were also interested in protecting their financial interests. In the year 1926, 80 percent of the films shown in India were American and 10 percent British. The British wanted to reduce the exhibition of American films and, in their place, show their own productions. The British hoped to literally censor/ban American films on the grounds that they violated the censorship rules. Unfortunately, this was not to be after the 1928 Ranagacharia Committee Report found no major differences between the effect of American and British films on the “natives”. In fact, they suggested that all white people appeared the same to the natives. To the British claim that they wanted to limit American films because they wanted to promote the “indigenous film industry”, the Committee responded that if that were true they should help the natives—not themselves.
After independence in 1947, the Indian government amended the Cinematograph Act and created two categories of censorship certificates: ‘A’ for films restricted to adults and ‘U’ for universal unrestricted exhibition. This act created a distinction between films for adults and films for children with the only difference that the ‘A’ category was defined by the amount of sex and violence in them.
In 1969, following concern over the rise in sex and violence in films the government set up the Khosla Committee to inquire into the working of the existing procedures for the certification of films for public exhibition and related matters. The committee made many recommendations with regard to the principles of censorship, but the debate focused solely on the representation of sexuality with the committee advising the Censors that “If, in telling the story it is logical, relevant or necessary to depict a passionate kiss or a nude human figure, there should be no question of excluding the shot, provided the theme is handled with delicacy and feeling, aiming at aesthetic expression and avoiding all suggestion of prurience or lasciviousness.”
A flurry of articles and interviews seeking to (re)define Indian tradition followed the Khosla Committee report. The proponents of censorship contended that representations of sexuality such as kissing and ‘exotic love scenes’ were ‘un-Indian’, with its opponents arguing otherwise. This is an example of the fact that the battles over Indian national identity are continuously waged on the terrain of sexuality as revealed by the list of objectionable visuals and the history of censorship debates over the years. It is the female body which is overtly and overly marked as the sexual body—and the body which must bear the burden of Indian tradition and family values.
Both the proponents and opponents of censorship heatedly debate whether depiction of sexuality is part of Indian tradition or not. Whether “double-standards” for judging Indian vs foreign films maintain Indian values, preserve colonial puritanism or reinforce a patriarchal status quo, and whether this national prudishness in any way affects the state’s (and a portion of the public’s) much desired goal—to be modern and democratic. A debate that demonstrate that the regulation of female sexuality is central to national identity.
That the relevance of female sexuality as an organising principle of Indian national identity recently has been illustrated by the debate over Subash Ghai’s Khalnayak (1993). The controversy centered on the song “Choli ke peeche kya hai? (What is behind the blouse?)” which was nearly censored for its ‘obscene’ lyrics. As the supporters and the detractors of the film song competed to define Indian tradition, questions concerning sexual ethics emerged.
Both sides attempted to produce a so-called Indian ‘tradition’. Some supporters characterised the song as a ‘folk’ song and therefore, a part of India’s long tradition of sensuality which can be traced to the Kama Sutra. They claimed that the current puritanism is a colonial legacy which was imbibed and propagated by leaders like Gandhi. Conversely, its opponents contended that the lyrics are ‘obscene’, ‘vulgar’, and ‘un-Indian.’ They claimed that such lyrics are part of the West’s immoral influence.
What complicates the debate on Indian tradition further is the specific function the film industry assumes in a growing capitalist market. In Khalnayak, the film song is a conduit for the commodified presentation of the female body. As Ganga dressed in the controversial blouse struts across the floor, the camera salaciously focuses on different parts of her anatomy. This body is presented as a sexy package which is sold in theatres and video stores for huge profits.
But after all is said and done, it is just plain ironic, that the act of censorship only generates public desire to view the censored film and ends up increasing the film industry’s profits. Thus, on the one hand, these effects are contrary to the state’s objectives: of guarding public morals and limiting film industry’s profits, and on the other, they support a less visible state objective: the maintenance of patriarchal systems. Censorship remains central to national identity, even as it generates desire, profit and corruption all the time.