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Updated: December 3, 2013 00:13 IST

Exploring cinema, censorship and its impact

Usha V. T.
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Censorium by William Mazzarella
Special Arrangement Censorium by William Mazzarella

Cinema is unarguably the most powerful medium of the present with tremendous affective and performative potential. In terms of performance art-forms evolving from myth to modernity, from ritual to theatre, cinema has grabbed the space within and outside the human mind. Small wonder that within a few years of its emergence, the medium has swiftly seeped through the corners of the open edge of mass publicity through its performative dispensations, namely the element of anonymity that characterizes any public communication in the age of mass publics: in the sense that what makes cinematic communication public is not just that “it addresses me” by way of public channel, but also that “it addresses me insofar as it also, and by the same token, addresses unknown others” in the shared public sphere.

Barring perhaps the ubiquitous internet and social networks, cinema’s role thus in creating a symbolic authority has only increased over the years in the collective sphere in a sort of geometric progression. But the reach that this wields is so often curtailed and constricted by the powers that be. Technically freedom of art-forms and their power of expression reside in the people and the state that is their political expression. But in actual practice who is it that articulates it? Who sanctions the energy that is palpable in the streets and theatres, its legitimate expressions? Politicians? Activists? Movie Stars? MNCs? Courts? Censors?

Through what kinds of language can the provocations of performance — on stage, screen or street — be measured and judged? Is it through claims to tradition and ancient lineage, heritage and moral community? Or through sensitive norms of progress, rationality, decency and taste? This leads us to the serious issues discussed in William Mazzarella’s Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity.

Reasonable restrictions

In India, freedom of speech and expression is ensured by Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution but is also limited by Article 19(2), which allows the government to place “reasonable restrictions” on this right “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” This provides the government with a wide net to seize and censor almost anything that is disfavourable.

The question that naturally would surface is how far is this censorship compatible with the constitutional provisions of a democratic nation? In many ways then censorship not merely silences speech but it also produces authorized forms of truth. This pertains not only to cinema but figures in the larger issues of all human creativity. It is argued that struggles over free speech and the dynamics of governmentality have their distinct regional and national histories. However, even from its inception, cinema has a global history, and thus to follow its evolution vis-à-vis censorship is to trace a graph of disciplinary technology that proliferates normalized understandings of subjectivity, sexuality, and citizenship in the lines of Michel Foucault.

William Mazzarella’s Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity is an ethnographic project that is set forth in five interpretative chapters exploring the elementary forms of mass publicity, the grounds of the censor’s judgment, the impact of censorship, its aesthetic distinction and finally a discussion on aspects of obscenity and the public forum. The introduction that leads up to the issues is so excellently set forth that it makes a groundwork for the reader to get the rest of the acts together in terms of the situation through colonial and postcolonial periods.

This book is eminently readable and the arguments are easily accessible because they are set forth in a jargon-free language. The data that is referred to is also from popular media. This is not to imply that the thesis lacks theoretical framework; but on the other hand so much of the density of the theoretical arguments that it resorts to are softened through such tender and accessible language that doesn’t for a moment appear to moralize or sermonize even when the author is forced to take up sensitive issues of culture, class, gender and morality.

For instance, the image of the “pissing man” that is sustained in the argument from beginning to end is not intended as an object of ridicule or even to mock at a culture that engenders the same — it is done with a sense of shame and a complete recognition of the situations of modernity that declassifies humans in terms of literacy and illiteracy. It is deemed obvious that authoritarian censorship thrived amid a servile citizenry and Indian public for ages had been looked upon as affected with an underdeveloped political rationality. Centuries of foreign domination and colonial burdens have repeatedly submitted the people into an abject servility and an equally over-compensatory assertion. If the British had plundered India’s resources, then successive post-Independence governments had done all too little to bring enlightenment to the citizenry. And then there is this political reason to cater to the vulnerability of Indian masses because it becomes easy enough to provoke an illiterate mind rather than a literate one.

Test of obscenity

The naïve argument that one often hears in support of censorship is: This is not America, this is India! And “the common man” is a polite name for the pissing man, invoked as always in the third person, in other words the imagined audience. Of course, meaning is always a function of the context, and every imaged object has its social and historical context. The meaning of indecency and obscenity has also undergone timely changes. Mazzarella quotes Justice Khosla on pornography as appealing against the notion of inadvertently applying tendency as a test of obscenity: “Anything may have a tendency for almost anything. A lamp post may be taken as a phallic symbol, a convenient object for canine relief, a source of light, evidence of civilization, something to lean against when waiting for a bus or something to demolish in order to demonstrate a sense of rebellion or discontent. So what is the tendency of a lamppost?” So how is one to go about making a list of bad things to be banned? Cinema threatened colonial authority on account of the roving eye of the camera that could move freely in close proximity or long shot. And imposing censorship on its transparent images was like making them a little more visible.

Thomas Metcalf argued that the British colonial policy in India was driven by a constant tension between universalizing ideals and particularizing practices. Film censorship, as early as the 1920-s, manifested this doubling. As patron/police, or ma/baap, the colonial government represented both an auratic exemplar of civilization and a supposedly impartial guarantor of the separate rights of India’s communities.

Cinema spoke directly to both of these impulses. In postcolonial times these double standards continued in the levels of the censored and the censors, nevertheless it is a mistake to think that censorship is simply a reactionary discourse, because in its most drastic reactionary moments it reveals a radical tendency in mass publicity. Mazzarella goes on to argue that understanding obscenity as a tendency of image objects opens up a useful way of thinking about mass publicity in general. If the censors have already exposed themselves to the corruptible then they themselves are corrupted thus and in no position to judge or debar. The issue thus crosses aesthetic and moral boundaries and moves into the psychological.

Censorium is at once a documentary on censorship and a theoretical space for hair-splitting analyses.

Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity by William Mazzarella, Orient Blackswan, 2013. Rs. 795

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