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August 31, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Pritish Nandy

Who wants a Nanny?

We must learn from the Hindu activists in the United States.

Through sustained protests and angry e-mails they have forced Warner Brothers to delete a shloka from the Bhagavad Gita that was used as background music for an orgy sequence in Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut. The activists (who very effectively used the Internet to target their ire against the Hollywood studio) argued that the shloka in which Krishna talks of returning to this earth again and again in different guises to fight back evil was used in an inappropriate and vulgar manner in the film.

Therefore, it was defamatory. It had to be taken out.

There was no government intervention, no censorship, no ban. Just effective activism and the smart, purposeful mobilisation of public opinion that swung the decision in favour of removing the shloka. And Warner Brothers did it.

But if you think the removing of the shloka will allow us to see Eyes Wide Shut as the rest of the world will now see it, you are mistaken. For the Censor Board here is least concerned about whether religious sensitivities are hurt or not. All they want to show is that they are the boss. They know what is good for us, what is not. So, whether you approve or not, this arrogant bunch of self seeking and insufferably pompous, scissor-happy thugs appointed by a culturally illiterate political establishment will actually sit down and decide on your behalf and mine whether we are adult enough to see Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman making out in Stanley Kubrick's swansong.

Who are these decision makers? Some of the people on the board are bored housewives. Others are people with the appropriate political connections that give them entry into this elite club of halfwits that has usurped the authority to decide what the people of India can watch on screen. Forgetting that freedom of expression is enshrined in our Constitution and no one has the right to interfere in works of artistic merit.

But does that stop our censors? No. In fact, to show off their power, they not just categorise films (as most countries do) but also exorcise them of anything that they think could possibly corrupt us. Forgetting that modern India has been corrupted not by movies but by politics. The fact that the Censor Board is known more for its politics than the quality of its artistic judgement makes its decisions that much more dubious. What is worse is that it is presided over by a middle-aged nanny whose only claim to fame is that thirty years ago, when she was was less ample, she ran around trees and made a perfect fool of herself in films that no one cares to remember today.

So you and I, the average, intelligent, informed Indian living in the last decade of the twentieth century, are stuck watching what this prehistoric monster of a body passes as fit to be seen. If they ban a film, we cannot see it. If they mutilate it, we cannot complain. If they think they know better than us, we have to suffer their arrogance. And all this, mind you, from the money you and I pay as taxes in a democracy which prides itself on the freedom of expression!

The decisions of this board are sometimes barely short of insanity. What gets past them in one film is chopped off in another. While vulgar choreography and cheeky lyrics sneak through in countless movies (if you see the late night countdown shows on Tamil channels you will know what I mean) a word like "quinny" (which does not even exist in the lexicon) gets the guillotine. Flashes of a love making scene, barely discernible, are chopped off in Elizabeth while Deepa Mehta's paean to lesbianism, Fire is promptly cleared. Such A Long Journey, based on Rohinton Mistry's book, got 12 huge cuts, for language that Satya easily got away with. Austin Powers 2 lost its original title because The Spy Who Shagged Me was too hot to handle.

But the ultimate example of mindless censorship was killing the promo for Gajagamini on the pretext on explicit sexuality!

Banning has become a dangerous habit now. It is not just the censors. Everyone in authority wants to ban something or the other. A book. A play. A song. A movie or a rock concert. Everyone thinks he or she has the divine right to play nanny to this nation.

The question is: Who gave them the right? Who gave Asha Parekh the right to chop off what she does not like in movies that are way beyond her ability to even comprehend? She could have simply categorised them. U for universal viewing; A for grown-ups. But how can she cut out what she does not like?

How can Pramod Navalkar decide which rock concert is good for Mumbai and which is not? How can he decide what is culturally correct, what is not? The same argument applies to pool parlours. How can the state decide which game is right, which game is wrong? Pool comes from a genre that has brought India more international acclaim than any other sport. We have produced world beaters like Wilson Jones, Michael Fereira, and the irrepressible Geet Sethi. And yet we put punishing taxes on pool parlours under the specious pretext that youngsters gamble there?

If gambling was such a crime, we should have banned cricket or soccer a long time back. More money is put on a single cricket match than can be made or lost on pool in the next hundred years. And even as the authorities complain about gambling in Mumbai's pool parlours, Kashmir, Goa and Madhya Pradesh have issued permits for full fledged casinos!

Actually gambling is not the issue here. It's power play. The flaunting of authority. Like the Chief Election Commissioner who has decided in his wisdom that every crook, every scamster, every thief, every terrorist, every murderer, every rapist in India has the right to vote in the coming elections except Balasaheb Thackeray. What is his crime? Many years ago, during an election campaign, Thackeray made a speech with communal undertones. So he is now banned. He cannot stand for elections for six years. He cannot vote. His rights as an Indian citizen under the Constitution must be denied to him.

Of course, Dara Singh who burnt alive Graham Staines and his two sons can vote. Every bride burner, every child molester, every rapist, every thug, every AK-47 wielding terrorist or extortionist can vote. Every scamster, from Sukh Ram to Laloo Prasad, can vote. They can even stand for elections.

So can Jayalalitha despite the huge number of corruption cases against her. The ULFA militants can vote. So can the Kashmir terrorists, the Mizo ultras, the Naga rebels. The Naxalites, who do not even believe in voting, can vote. But Thackeray cannot. Why? Because he has been banned.

Liberalisation is the new mantra. It has opened us to the world and made India stronger, braver, more self confident. It has also taught us one simple truth. That freedom does not diminish us; it strengthens us. It teaches us how to face the world. While banning and censorship keeps us in chains.

If modern India is to progress and move ahead, the State must resist the temptation to interfere in our choices. It must accept us for what we are today. Informed citizens of a mature democracy who are capable of taking their own decisions.

The nannies can go to hell.

Pritish Nandy

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