Movies

Censorship or self-regulation?

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The "S" (as in sleaze) word seems to be all over the airwaves these days. And it‘s not all linked to the latest technology driven monster - that little camera-enabled cell phone that seems to be capturing everything from school kids in the act to Hindi movies stars caught in the lip-locked act.

This and sundry other incidents has again brought the whole issue of censorship and content regulation upfront and on camera. It had receded into the background a bit after the unceremonious ouster two months ago of previous censor board chief Anupam Kher on "ideological" grounds.

That the issue is one that needs addressing goes without saying. With more than 130 channels, reaching out to about 85 million homes and with more than 200 million homes still remain to be tapped, India is touted as one of the largest growing TV audience in the world. Which is why analysts feel the time has finally come to take stock of the situation.

The headline news of course has been the vicarious glee with which news channels went to town repeatedly playing of the full video sequence of the infamous Kareena Kapoor-Shahid Kapoor lip-lock. Under the garb of covering the news, many feel that the news channels have crossed the limits. As an outraged viewer put it in a communication to indiantelevision.com, "It‘s increasingly becoming difficult to watch news with children around. It was perhaps the worst experience to watch current news about Kareena and Shahid Kapoor. I felt shy when I was watching the News with my daughter sitting next to me. It looks like news channels have now converted to ‘masala‘ where you may see all the sex and violence without any prejudice in the name of news. Media should be informative but at present, it looks like it‘s only looking at entertaining people."

Another point of contention being the crime shows being churned out by all the news channels. There is a sentiment gaining ground that in the name of covering crime many channels are just portraying sex and violence with most of the hidden cameras only chasing pimps and prostitutes. A few months ago one also saw the sensationalisation of the Dhananjay Chatterjee death row case With some of the leading news channels going overboard with pictures of how a `hanging‘ takes place (a noose is tied around the neck, and how at what angle the hangman pulls the rope etc; two cases of such attempts to imitate such a hanging by young children were reported in the suburbs of Mumbai.

As a media analyst puts it, "We have to remember that TV can have a direct impact on our lives. A film is out there, and TV is in your home, and it can influence our behaviour in subtle ways, and more so for children. And in the current environment kids need to be prevented from seeing excessive violence or sexual content."

Though TV channels continue to swear by self-censorship, even those who are principally opposed to moral policing now feel there is a need for a regulatory body. This brings us to certain very tricky questions, answers to which are perhaps two-sided. Do we, as mature adults really need censorship or content regulation? Who is really capable of deciding what we should watch or what we should not watch? Will government interference in regulating TV content become a highly bureaucratic process, open to corruption and other malpractices?

As the debate continues, the moral brigade continues to cry hoarse for a regulatory body for the TV industry. A look at some of the incidents of the past few weeks show that the debate is hotting up again.

* The controversial Hindi film ‘Girlfriend‘ depicting lesbianism was stopped from being telecast at 11 pm on Zee Cinema about two weeks ago. While the channel had publicised the screening several days in advance, the cops cracked the whip at the 11th hour. The police sent a notice to officials from Zee Cinema directing them not to show the film. The logic being that it is an adult film and cannot be shown on TV (to preclude any possibility of children getting to see unsuitable fare?). Sources reveal that the police had acted on complaints received from citizens who protested the telecast of the film.

* Recently Sony TV also had to withhold the screening of Murder (a thriller that had adultery as its bedrock premise) after a women‘s organization from the Gujarati Jain community protested.

* There were howls of protest, though no formal complaint was lodged with the I&B Ministry, after a rape scene was shown in the Hindi entertainment‘s most popular serial ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi‘ on Star Plus. Though the channel claimed that it was shown to sensitise viewers about crimes committed against women, the morality squads believe that it was just part of the TRP game.

* Recently, voicing concern over "objectionable" serials and programmes projecting women in bad light, a women‘s group in the south, the Andhra Pradesh Mahila Samakhya, demanded a censor board for TV channels. The Samakhya leaders also demanded constitution of "anti-obscenity squads" on the lines of the anti-goonda squads.

What all these incidents highlight is this. Though there is a formal regulatory body on the censorship of films, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), there is no such content regulatory authority overlooking the television sector. Admittedly, the information and broadcasting ministry has a special cell to monitor programmes on channels and raise objections on shows which hurt public sentiments, obscene and vulgar. These cases if filed are registered under the Cable Television Network Act. But market watchers say that there are hardly any such cases registered by the ministry.

Commenting on the current scenario, columnist and TV tracker, Kaveree Bamzai opines that there is definitely a need for a regulatory mechanism in place. Says Bamzai, "The issue has long been debated; it was even first proposed in 1997 when Mr Jaipal Reddy was the I&B Minister. But then, as usual, other issues come up. Like with channels uplinking from other countries how do we regulate, will the onus really be on the cable operator or on broadcasters. But the fact of the matter is, we are not living in an ideal world, and parents are not always in a position to control viewing for children, and self-regulation for channels has not really worked. So, if you find a particular programme objectionable, whom do you approach? Whom do you confront and who will take the broadcaster to task. These things have to be made clear."

But, then many in the industry feel that self censorship has worked. Refuting facts that the channels certain programmes like Hot & Wild, have often faced pressure from the moral brigade, SET‘s VP Marketing, Rohit Bhandhari says " we‘ve never faced any such problem with AXN. The channel has strict internal guidelines and if there is anything that we find objectionable we avoid screening it or we edit it."

Many feel the viewer can exercise control by just changing the channel. Says documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan , " Self regulation does work and is working in the country; or else wouldn‘t you see soft porn on your TV sets, though children definitely need to be kept away fro showing excessive violence. As far as films are concerned, w are trying to do away with censorship and regulation. Afterall, if you find something objectionable you can always change the channel."

If self-censorship has worked, then why do we have cops coming into the picture. When queried about the screening of the film Girlfriend at 11 pm the Zee officials maintained that the film was to be screened at 11.30 pm and not 11 pm. On condition of anonymity, the official said, "I don‘t know why we‘re talking about there being no regulation; we have the Cable Television Act which has clear guidelines in it. As a viewer, I am free to watch whatever and criticize or object to whatever that is being shown on TV. And even when we have the Censor board for films we face problems, because there will always be two different perspectives of looking at a particular scene."

Yet, as the debate continues, the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Jaipal Reddy has recently made a statement that a new committee would be set up to examine the censorship laws in its entirety. The Minister has said, "though not in favour of moral policing with regard to censorship of films or music television videos, but we cannot do without some kind of a law. A committee headed by the joint Secretary will look at the law in its entirety."

Though, it remains to be seen what the Ministry panel finally comes out with, there are many who feel that the whole business of regulating will be a very difficult area. For e.g. if a channel is being beamed from Singapore and is showing adult content in the afternoon, whom do you approach. How do you go about regulating fiction and news content where over 1,000 hours of programming are being churned out every day.

But then there are others who feel if it has worked in other countries, it can be implemented in India too. Says former Censor board chief Anupam Kher, "I don‘t know what Jaipal Reddy has said, but I strongly feel that the government is not working towards it. Often it is blamed on some technical matter or the other. You might talk about channels not been uplinked from India, but the revenues are coming in from this country."

He further adds, "One has to remember that the majority is still in the villages, and women are subjected to more sexual harassment there. So, we cannot have vulgar music videos and all kinds of movies being screened anytime of the day. In the game of TRP‘s you can‘t expect the channels or independent producers to exercise self-censorship. And parents do not have time for children. Abroad, parents exercise the ‘parental lock‘. Here what should we do? Since the channels, producers are also in the business of TRPs we cannot always expect them to act objectively, so we need some form of parental guidance from the government."

Adds Kaveree, "The government has been talking about it for years now, but nothing has been done. We could probably frame the committee based on the UK model, where independent experts from all facets of society represent it."

Well, if that can be done, it would be a major milestone for the industry. But will it be done? Going by past precedence, that‘s a mighty big IF!

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