Upholding ‘National Culture’

It is believed that there will be a time in the near future when racial discrimination will end, as interracial breeding will lead to a ‘brown’ world that is not divided into portions of black, white, or yellow etc. Perhaps then, the world will be engulfed by a unique sense of unity intended for everything including the arts – ‘a united cultural identity of the brown world’.

It is a beautiful future to look forward to - a world congenial for all forms of art, especially Cinema, for in this world films will not have to be butchered to suit specific needs of individual nations.

Today, the ‘developed nations’ enjoy cinema reasonably without unnecessary restraints whilst the developing nations are still struggling through a prolonged period of utter confusion wherein no one knows where to draw the line or what to draw the line for in the first place. According to theorists ‘developing nations are going through a painful period of fire’ to metamorphose into developed nations, and I feel as though the same logic applies to cinema as well, and especially so in my country - India.

Whilst mulling over this I chanced upon a fantastic essay that enunciates this very confusion (of individual nations) that I am referring to, in the book Ideology of the Hindi Film by M. Madhava Prasad. In Guardians of the View: The Prohibition of the Private the author takes us through the ‘unwritten rule’ prohibiting the use of kissing scenes in films, a possible remnant rule of the ‘Raj’, but more appropriately a trend emerging from the ‘non-Indian ness’ of the act of kissing. Interestingly, there is no such ban on kissing scenes in foreign films screened in India. Giving an example from the film Sangam here, which has been shot in a foreign location, the author notes how even abroad the protagonists observe the ban whereas the amoral foreigners in the background don’t.

It is surprising to see such a stringent belief system in a land that is known to have born literatures like the Kama Sutra, whether or not this belief system is adapted from the foreign or is self-induced is a separate issue. Surprisingly, in 1996 Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra faces a ban in India because of the erotic nature of some of the scenes. Set aside the fact that the film had a different storyline than the original Kama Sutra and that it was filmed dubiously with the original title not revealed to Indian officials until the final screening; is it not hypocritical to ban a film from the land of the literature that it has adopted its name and a few other elements from and where it is based?

In mid 1969 when this informal, non-chartered ban on kissing scenes in films is lifted in India, it is still unwittingly followed until the mid eighties wherein some filmmakers include some obligatory scenes as if to merely register the lifting of the ban. An enquiry committee’s report on film censorship’s unwritten rule is quite revealing of the opinion within the film fraternity and many notable filmmakers condemn the subsequent lifting of the ban. The curtailment of such public display of affection is considered the country’s individualistic moral code and hence a duty by many in the industry and is reflected in their films wherein the actors or even the film as an entity, abide by this moral code thus upholding ‘national culture’. Notably according to Indian culture, women always have to follow a stricter moral code and the same rule very much applies to cinema as well.

However, there are ways in which certain characters are exempted from the duty of upholding ‘national culture’ to its utmost – these are characters like the cabaret dancer or even the main characters of a film in a song and dance sequence displaying pre or post coital behaviorism/symbolism. Ergo, although in the film Balidaan (1985), in a dream song sequence, Jitendra and Sri devi are together in a bath tub, which is filled with foam, when they come out of it they are wearing some kind of conservative swimming attire. From the tub, they move on to a multiple shower set up wherein they bathe together under the showers whilst singing and dancing of course. At this point when they move closer into each other and perhaps almost hug, the scene cuts to a block shot of a sculpture (backlit with mood lighting) – the sculpture is an amorous one of a man and woman embracing, about to kiss but ‘not kissing’.

Today in 2008 India, the situation isn’t much different I feel. Today, the ‘item number’ has replaced the cabaret dance and in song and dance sequences sexual innuendos are heightened further with apt histrionics and overtly provocative clothing. So, although every other actress wear hot pants and micro-mini skirts teamed with smaller than smallest tube tops and bends over at the drop of a hat to let the ‘hero’ be enamored by her posterior, she still (more than often) upholds the holier than thou status of ‘no $#@& before marriage’. In a way this ideology is epitomized in the song from the movie Love (1991) starring Salman Khan and Revathy wherein Salman sings, “Aaja aaja give me a kiss” come and give me a kiss, to which Revathy says, “Na na na na, still I am a miss” No, I can’t as we aren’t married yet, I’m still a Miss.

Maybe just maybe it’s time we shed these ‘imaginary veils’ which we feel protect our supposed individual ‘abrooh’ (honour), and we truly ‘be’ what we ‘are’.

By pointing these things out, I do not mean to question the sensibilities of individual filmmakers because of course they have every right to choose what and how much they would like to show in their films. I am merely trying to point out the hypocrisy of our belief system, a system that is extremely outdated in today’s day and age much like our bureaucratic set up. This very confused belief system, its portrayal in films and its subsequent warped reception by an unassuming audience trickles down to an equally confused citizenry. For instance today you can see children as young as 3 – 4 years of age wearing clothing replicated to match that worn by their favourite actors in the latest flicks and It is absolutely disturbing to see a 4-year-old strut around in 2-inch heels and synthetic shimmer-y disco clothes at a metro/tube station struggling to keep apace with her parents.

However, it is not just at my home turf that such hypocrisy breeds easily. The neighboring Chinese Administration recently reacted severely in response to the Chinese actress Tang Wei’s performance in Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution (2007). Wei had been selected from over 10,000 actresses to portray the character of Wong Chia Chi / Mrs. Mak in the film. The graphic erotic scenes in the film are what the China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television reacted to in March 08, renewing their existent prohibitions on "lewd and pornographic content". This renewed ban did not officially name Tang Wei but Chinese regulators ordered TV stations in Beijing and Shanghai to stop reporting on the actress and to pull any advertisements featuring her.

Soon after, Wei started losing her lucrative Film & Ad assignments that she had already been signed up for and eventually applied for a Hong Kong citizenship, which she successfully received. A Hong Kong News paper reported that all award shows in China were advised to exclude Wei and the producers of Lust, Caution from their guest lists, while discussions about the film and Wei on online forums were deleted.

China has also in the past for obvious but not justifiable reasons banned films that talk about Tibetan Nationalism or the Dalai Lama. The film Kundan, upon its release in the year ‘97 was banned outright along with director Martin Scorsese. Another ‘97 release, Seven Years in Tibet was banned outright upon its release for its free view on Tibet along with actors Brad Pitt and David Thewlis.

Perhaps what we need today, in order to be able to reach the ‘new brown world code’ in the coming future is a revamping of our belief systems by legitimizing the truth and portraying it in our cinema; whilst making sure that only viewers worthy of viewing the message we are tying to convey, simply by the virtue of being of an ‘appropriate age’, receive it. Whilst the former is an essential internal cleansing process that nations will need to indulge in themselves, the latter could be achieved by a unified effort by all nations towards building a new and improved * J Film Rating System, applicable worldwide and adhered to with all honesty and reverence by one and all.

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