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Star CEO Uday Shankar opposes censorship, says it can undo gains made by M&E sector

MUMBAI: Despite all the staggering growth in the digital side of the media and entertainment sector in the last one year, the head of Star India is disturbed by the growing trend of censorship, which, he fears, could curb creativity.

Star India chairman and CEO Uday Shankar refers to the rise in cases of censorships. In 2015–16, the censor board refused certification to 77 movies. This number was 47 in 2014–15 and only 23 the previous year.

uday shankar ficciframes 2016“Today I would like to point out a somewhat disturbing trend. A trend that in the long run is likely to undo a lot of gains that we have made in the last few decades. I am concerned if the Indian creative mind is in a position to respond to the pace of technological change with an equally rapid evolution in its creativity. The key reason for this is of course the censorship that we all have to put up with. As the world gets bolder, our censor authorities seem to be getting more and more conservative. Even a word like ‘saali’ has to be silenced in a film. The city names must be absolutely correct and contemporary and of course don’t go anywhere near discussions of women’s issues, let alone female sexuality,” Shankar said while speaking at FICCI Frames.

The fault, however, does not lie only at the door of the censor board but also with the self-appointed bodies who spread street-side censorship. He referred to the hooliganism on the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie ‘Padmavati’ in Jaipur and Kolhapur.

“In my view, the (censor) board generally reflects the dominant consensus of our society and there are increasingly more bodies, mostly self-appointed, who have taken upon themselves the task of censoring media content. The refrain seems to be—I don’t like the legend or the myth on which your story is based, so I will burn down your sets. I don’t like a character, so I will not let you release your film. If you say you are going to do a show of busting fake godmen and gangsters, there is pre-emptive action. And what is becoming alarming now is that sometimes even the forums that you would seek redressal at are more inclined to bless the street-side censorship than speak for the freedom of expression,” said Shankar.

Emphasising how courts are getting dragged into this, Shankar offered the example of the movie ‘Jolly LLB 2’.

“A few days before the release of the movie, we were asked to screen it to a group of lawyers and medical professionals who would decide whether the scenes were appropriate or whether they insulted any profession or institution. This was despite that the movie had been certified for universal release by the censor board. And this is just one example. There is a long list of instances where the creative community has been bullied into changing its output to suit the needs of someone or the other in India. It seems that there are always people lurking in the shadows. Their sole job is to stretch and explore every piece of content that could be potentially offensive to someone,” he said.

A more recent example is that of a case of habeas corpus. The father of a girl who had eloped with her lover moved the court. When the girl was produced in the court, she said that she eloped with her lover. She had got this idea from a Tamil film. The entire regional censor board was then asked to present themselves before the court. The court wanted to check why the censor board gave an approval to that film.

The most worrying part, Shankar said, is that “creative minds have begun to self-censor their thoughts and have started killing ideas before they germinate so as to avoid any conflict. And this is really frightening.”

On the call for censorship in the online space, Shankar said the internet was supposed to create greater plurality of opinions, but “instead it has created a violent polarity and punishment for disagreement has become the norm now”.

There seems to be no room left to have civil debates and no place for those who disagree, Shankar lamented.

Punishment for disagreement seems to have become the norm. The institutions tasked with protecting expression and plurality seem to be at loggerheads with the objective itself. By creating elaborate formal ceremonies around it, are we taking the joy out of one of the most loved and celebrated lyrics in our country, i.e. our national anthem? What’s frightening is that the court order has just become yet another weapon in the hands of any goon who is keen to stamp his authority.

“We are rapidly descending into a mindset where the most critical objective of a work of art is to make sure that it offends nobody no matter how many thematic or creative compromises it has to make. This is the most worrying part—that creative minds have begun to self-censor their thoughts and have started killing ideas before they germinate so as to avoid any conflict. And that is really frightening. The advocates of this vandalism claim that unique measures must be taken to protect our unique culture.”

He noted that India is wrongly following the example of Hollywood in the past. “Let me tell you, there is nothing unique about these methods. We seem to be following the script that Hollywood had written almost 100 years ago. In the early part of the 20th century, Hollywood had decided to self-regulate itself. It adopted a production code and insisted on its enforcement for almost 25 years. The code covered the use of profanities like ‘hell’ and ‘damn’, any suggestive nudity, wilful offence of any nation, race or creed and any ridicule of the clergy, among other things.

“Doesn’t it sound familiar? The similarity with our own moral code is striking, to say the least. Interestingly, television, which was just arriving in American homes then, emerged as the challenger to this regime. Along with European cinema that came into the US, television buried this regressive moral code.

“The question today is: Will digital play the same role for our generation and our country? The role of a progressive challenger, the role of providing a bigger canvas to creativity and creating a space for dissenting points of view. This new medium has the ability to truly democratise broadcasting.

“It offers the creative community the rare opportunity to rethink from scratch their art and how it is communicated. Only when modern technology and contemporary creativity truly come together will we create a compelling and powerful media and entertainment offering.”

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