Lipstick Under My Burkha censorship row: A tale of middle class morality and judgment

Ajay Kumar

Feb 24, 2017 16:06:48 IST

One of the best summations on how morality is perceived was discovered by this author on one of those picture quote cards that one keeps seeing shared on Facebook. Upon further investigation, this author managed to track the quotation down to a Lisa Kleypas, a former Miss Massachusetts and best selling author of historical and contemporary romance novels, though her summation may also qualify her as a moralist. She states, "Morality is only for the middle class, sweet. The lower class can't afford it, and the upper classes have entirely too much leisure time to fill."

Which brings us on a journey that started a few thousand years ago in a place called Rome where a few middle class Roman citizens thought it might be a jolly good idea to give the person who was in charge of taking the census (Censor) the power to ensure that the public morals were also maintained. So along with maintaining the register of citizens, managing the public finances, the censors of Rome were in charge of keeping the public morals for which they were answerable to no law.

Lipstick Under My Burkha censorship row: A tale of middle class morality and judgment

Still from 'Lipstick Under My Burkha'

Ever since then, this curious creature has become a part of the lives of citizens everywhere in the world. Wherever there is a moment of fun to be had, a dirty joke to be cracked, a politician to be annoyed or an inappropriate moment to be shared, there comes the censor with his scissors out to cut, slash and rebuke and ask society to toe the line or face his wrath.

Which brings us to India, where just after independence, we enacted our own Cinematograph Act of 1952 to replace the British law of the same name of 1918 and slightly liberalise the procedure. Instead of there being a Censor board in various regions, there would now be one Central Board of Film Censors. In 1983, we thought the word censor didn't sound too right and we rechristened the board the Central Board of Film Certification. So now what does this Central Governmental Authority do? It tells you which films you can take your children to watch with you at the theatres and which films are best watched by you alone. That's the long and short of it.

It certifies films into the following categories: a) Unrestricted b) Unrestricted (but be careful some scenes may be unsuitable for children under 12) c) Adults only  d) Professionals Only (Medical, Engineers etc) e) Any certificate but with cuts and modifications f) No certification.

The Act lays down a principle for guidance as to when certification may be refused and it's when the Board is of the opinion that it's against the security of the state, friendly relations with other states, public order, decency, morality, defamation, contempt of court, morality or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.

But let's leave this aside. Most developing and emerging democracies try and ban films on security grounds. The Government trying to interfere in that aspect can be condemned but can be understood. Absolute freedom of speech is still something that has to be negotiated with the State in India. But everything else, that's where it gets quite problematic.

Why does the type of certificate matter to a film Lipstick Under My Burkha? The answer lies in the tax break you get depending on your U and A certificate. Most states give different exemptions if your film carries a U certificate and an A certificate and this makes a big difference to the producer of a film. Further, if you are a A certificate film, your show times will also be restricted. You may not get prime time slots at most multiplexes and will be restricted to the after hours or matinee slots. Which may not draw in the numbers and hurt film revenues. So the certificate matters a lot to the producer as well as everyone who took part in the the film. What's the point of making a film if no one can watch it? The certificate also caries to your DVD and TV release of the film. So the type of certificate you get is very important.

But now let's ask a more fundamental question. Why does taxpayer money go to decide what kind of films are suitable for a U and A certificate? Surely this is something the industry can handle on their own? In America, ratings are handled by the industry body, the Motion Picture Association of America and theatres carry this rating. In the UK, this is done by the British Board of Film Classification another private industry body. These bodies have been doing this in their countries since the invention of cinema there. This is the height of our middle class morality at play that we need our Government to certify a film we are about to watch is safe for our eyes and ears. It's why the Romans elected a Censor all those years ago. The middle classes feel powerless politically,  so in order to feel some semblance of power, we exercise moral judgment over others.

Illustration: Ranadeep Chakravarty

Illustration: Ranadeep Chakravarty

As it is, only those who are shielded (or willingly keep their eyes shut) from the immoral realities of life (India's middle classes) who would be visibly upset at seeing them reflected on the screen. In fact if you look at it, most films that run into to trouble with the censor board on moral reasons, run into trouble with middle class India. This author often enjoys watching films at single screen theatres in the cities and seldom finds anyone disappointed with too many kissing or fight scenes in a film. In fact, the charm of a Bollywood film is often lost if there is a lack of violence, especially since he industry is more liberal now with its kissing and lascivious scenes. There is only more cause for hooting in an average single screen theatre. This adds to the movie going experience that is shared by many in a non-multiplex environment.

But in a multi-screen multiplex, the same scenes offend us, or we are afraid of the "message that it will send to the rest of the society"; our  almost patented dog whistle strategy for saying "corruption of morals amongst the poorer classes"  while we quietly download the uncut version of the film to watch in the comfort of our living rooms. A comfort that is inaccessible to the rest of the country that has to live with CBFC sanitised films that are shown in theatres and on television.

Of course the CBFC would never certify a film like Lipstick Under My Burkha. If you haven't seen the trailer then please check it out here. We the middle class would never stand for a film that showed the poorer sections of our society, not just exercising their autonomy but exercising their autonomy in the same spaces and ways that we are used to. What if the poor of India actually get the idea that they have a right to their sexuality? What if they no longer feel ashamed of living their lives?

Maybe if the director had made some fancy art film about a rich, upper class Muslim woman having a secret affair with her upper class Hindu lover in Cuffe Parade, then there would have been no trouble. Throw in a love story between someone who wears nothing but 5,000 rupee khadi kurtas and is an interior designer for NGOs and an NRI man who is in India hoping to start a social enterprise that delivers low-calorie, high-protein meals for dogs. There's no way a "wrong message would be sent to the public" with a film like that.

Updated Date: Feb 24, 2017 16:47:53 IST

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.