Cleaning up TV’s dirty pictures
I was watching a documentary on Greta Garbo on television. The film was in English with English subtitles for people more comfortable following written English than quick spoken English. Every time the word “sex” or something related to it would come up, the subtitles avoided it. “Heterosexual” became “hetero.” “Her sexuality” became “her femininity.” Dedicated channel surfing revealed similar evasions. In a conversation about breast cancer on an English channel, the station inserted an asterisk to partially mask the word “breast” in the subtitles, even though you could hear it onscreen.
TV stations and networks in India, similar to broadcast TV channels in the United States, remove objectionable content (sex scenes, nudity, some foul language and violence) from movies and other programming (see this recent Reuters story about how it works). This is thanks to the Indian Broadcasting Federation’s Broadcasting Content Complaint Council. The idea is to make sure that public airwaves remain friendly enough for the ears of children and sensitive adults, though it can result in unintentional bloopers like the breast cancer example.
Apply that to film, and it can be an editing massacre. Look for odd leaps forward in the film’s plot and you can see where the chopping happened. It wasn’t always this way. Channels such as Star Movies and HBO made minimal cuts or none at all until the BCCC was established in 2011. Hindi films fare little better. The lovemaking scene between Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta in “Salaam Namaste” was removed from the televised version of the movie. “The Dirty Picture,” the film about softcore actress Silk Smitha that starred Vidya Balan, came in for 59 cuts, but still couldn’t make the cut for television.
Just in case you missed the message about naughty content, messages flash on English channels every once in a while, asking viewers to report objectionable content to the complaint council. After a while, the question presents itself: is this nanny state protection or is it the more ominous “censorship”? Either way, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
Maybe people use the TV to “turn off,” while they use the Internet to “turn on”. How else to explain the protesters who showed up (albeit in small numbers) on the streets of India’s cities when the government shut down file-sharing services that some people use to watch pirated movies and listen to pirated music? The government also put a cap on what it defined as objectionable content that people post on Facebook and other social media sites. That’s a good way to raise some grassroots complaints, but it’s surprising that cutting TV time entertainment hasn’t sparked the same ire.
Maybe TV is like all the other curtailments to freedom of expression that Indians have dealt with. Who spoke up when the importation of Salman Rushdie’s bestselling novel “The Satanic Verses” was banned? Or when Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute library was ransacked by extremists protesting James Laine’s book “Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India.” Or when groups operating under their moral codes impose them on university syllabi or school textbooks?
Have people tacitly waived their right toward censorship by not exercising it? Many of us allow our freedom of speech to be curtailed when it comes to books and TV, but when asked to pay to watch movies and music, we lace up our combat boots … at least for now. The longer-term trend in India seems to be for its young people to plot paths to career success rather than thinking about preserving freedom or fighting for anything other than a religious dispute. Maybe there’s no gauntlet to pick up. Sooner or later, we may find ourselves treating Web surfing the same way we treat watching television — passive and without complaint.
(Editing by Robert MacMillan)