Udta Punjab is Coming Out! Woot! A Brief History of Film Censorship to Put this in Perspective

Udta Punjab is coming out!  Yaaaaaaaaay!!!  I am so happy!  And I know what I will be doing this Friday night!

When I went to see Housefull 3, I noticed these two posters next to each other in the lobby, and I had to take a picture, because it was such an interesting moment in the confluence of censorship:


Birth of a Nation, the new film coming out soon in the West, is a call back to the earliest censorship efforts in America.  And is currently being “censored” in the most common way American films are censored today.  And Udta Punjab, perhaps, is the beginning a new era of censorship in India.

Birth of a Nation, the DW Griffith movie from 1915, was based on a novel, which then became a successful play, and finally a movie.  It is an incredibly important film in the history of film techniques.  Griffith invented or perfected all sorts of things, like the close-up, the use of perspective, just the whole idea of a lengthy narrative film in general.  And it is especially obvious what he was doing, because it was based on a familiar product, a novel and then a play, so the new elements added for the film stood out.

It is also a horrible horribly evil film.  It portrays, and mythologizes, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in America.  That is, the original rise, immediately post the Civil War (so, in the 1870s and 80s).  The second rise of the Ku Klux Klan began with this film.  The new KKK was popular in the Midwest and in more urbanized areas, not in the deep south (the famous photo which inspired the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” was taken in Marion, Indiana, smack in the middle of the American heartland, far from the deep south where slavery was born).  Birth of a Nation was speaking to this audience, the smaller cities and bigger towns with movie theaters on their main street, not to the deeply rural deep south whose story it tells, where movie theaters would have been less common and less accessible.

The original Birth of a Nation inspired some of the first film censorship battles in America.  Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago and one of the world’s first Social Workers, formed a committee to keep the film out of Chicago because she was so disturbed by the message.  The NAACP started a national campaign of protests around screenings of the movie.  Remember, it was based on a popular novel and play, so you didn’t need to watch the movie to know what it would say.

Now, this is “good” censorship.  To this day, in film studies courses, you will generally learn about Birth of a Nation, but you will not see it.  Despite its vast importance in the history of American film, the content is so dangerous and so distasteful, that it cannot be screened.  And you truly do not need to watch it to make that judgement, a one sentence plot description is enough to tell you all you need to know.

But such content is very rare.  More often, film censorship comes about because of short sighted efforts at “protecting” audiences from truth or, more cynically, from politicians and interest groups trying to use the power and popularity of film to support their own agendas.  Which is where the majority of film censorship comes from in America, and around the world.


So, what does all this have to do with these two films?


Birth of a Nation, the new one, is about the Nat Turner uprising in November of 1831.  A full 30 years before the Civil War, Nat Turner, a slave, lead an uprising which almost managed to over turn the power balance in his region.  And then failed, and was put down cruelly, and lead to a series of brutal laws and punishments in an attempt to cut off slaves from any form of hope or support and betterment of themselves.  It not only tells about an important moment in American history, it takes back an important moment in film history, re-appropriating the title “Birth of a Nation” and arguing that the true “birth” was when the slaves fought for their liberty, not when the white man got his revenge after their liberty was achieved.

It’s not going to be censored, it’s going to get a wide release in America, but it may not get as wide a release as it could.  And it has already been given an “R” rating, which will restrict its access to the full audience.  This is the new kind of censorship, the “bad” kind, that came about for purely monetary reasons in response to self-serving political motivations.

The original Birth of a Nation was disgusting, but its disgusting political message had minimal effect on the bottom line.  What did make a difference was when a series of sex scandals about Hollywood movie stars broke and parents’ groups and church groups so on, saw an opportunity to piggyback on all the gossip with their own agenda.  These boycotts and protests did have an effect on the bottom line, and there was talk of a government body being formed to censor films.  Before that could happen, the filmmakers of America decided to censor themselves.

There have been two eras of self-censorship in America.  First, the Hays Office in the 1930s was created, run by Will Hays, former Postmaster general.  Which is important, because at that time it was illegal to distribute pornographic material through the mail in America, so being a Postmaster General presumably gave you some experience in mass censorship.  The Hays Office enforced the Motion Picture Production Code (informally called the “Hays Code”) from 1930 to 1968.  But it was only heavily in use from 1934 to 1954.

Before 1934, no one really bothered to follow it that closely, because it was an industry standard so the industry felt they could ignore it as they chose.  But in 1934, it was decided that the Hays Office had to issue a certificate to every film before it could be screened, which gave the code some teeth.  Of course, this only mattered when the movie studios owned every theater in America and could decide amongst themselves what would and would not be screened.  In 1948, in the Supreme Court’s Paramount decision, it was determined that the studios had to divest themselves of their movie theaters, and suddenly it was up to individual theaters and chains to decide what they wanted to show.

In 1953, the first film was released without that certificate, The Moon is Blue (not a very good movie, and not very radical. The big code-breaking issue was the use of the word “Pregnant”).  Independent movie theaters, not associated with the the Motion Picture Production group, screened it, and made money.  Audiences bought tickets, even without the certificate, and enjoyed it.  The world didn’t end.  Between 1954 and 1968, more and more films were released like this, mostly foreign films, but a few American ones as well.

The Hays Code people had used their power to enforce certain political views, regressive gender roles, power imbalances, all sorts of things.  But primarily, their interest was in making money.  They put the code in place so they could keep families and church groups coming to their movies.  And when they started losing audiences to the non-certified films, they got rid of the code and put the “Ratings System” in place.

The ratings system is what we have in America today, films can be rated from “G” for “general audience” to “NC-17” for “Not Certified for those under 17”.  But again, this is an entirely voluntary system.  The idea is that any film can be released, can even be released without being submitted to the MPCAA (in which case it comes out as “unrated”), but if it is released with an accurate rating, that will help audience members decide what is appropriate to watch.  And theaters can choose how to enforce these ratings as well, if they want to make it a blanket rule that no children are allowed in films above “G”, or if they want to only show “NC-17” films, that is up to them.

The problem is, this is still run by the studios and with an economic motivation in mind.  Independent films without strong backing in the industry tend to get higher ratings.  Big budget films from big studios tend to get lower ratings.  Part of this is because the board is biased, and part of this is because the big studios know what elements to avoid.  Generally speaking, the MPCAA will allow lots and lots of violence, lots of sexual innuendo and sexualized images, but no nudity and no bad language.

Which brings me back to India!  The Big Major Cannot-get-around-it difference between Indian film censorship and American film censorship is that there is a governmental body involved.  The motive is not purely profit (as it is in America), it is purely politics.  So, while the current “certificate board” may appear similar to the American system, a combination of the Hays era and the current rating era, since films are given a rating and a certificate both, the process itself is extremely different.

In America, the goal is not to censor movies, the goal is to avoid giving an excuse to anyone else to censor them.  The only concern with politics is concern over what will make politicians start thinking about setting up their own rules.  It’s still not a perfect system, films like the new Birth of a Nation are often slapped with a higher rating than a less controversial film might receive.  And that rating can stop it from being purchased by a major distributor, or shown in multiple theaters.  But they aren’t rating it like that because they hate free speech, they are rating it like that because they are worried about someone else who really really hates free speech noticing the American film industry and taking control away from them.

Which brings me to India!  And Udta Punjab.  I heard a reference somewhere that the current form of the Indian censor board is left over from the British wartime censorship levels.  Which were extremely high.  And then the British left, and the Indian government just kept going with those same levels.

I don’t know if that is true exactly, but it is certainly true that India inherited its censorship system from the British.  Just like in America, in the 1920s and 30s a bunch of British interest groups started pushing for a system that would “protect” the audience from the dangers of film.  At the same time, in the colonies, the British were increasingly aware of the power of film to incite rebellion.  For instance, the early Indian classic Sikander was not shown to British troops, as the message of “refuse to fight and the war will end” was a clear call to the Indian troops to stop fighting the British’s war.

(Or maybe it was concern of Prithviraj Kapoor’s raw sex appeal.)

In 1952, newly Independent India passed a new Act aimed at simplifying the censorship process.  Under the British, film censorship was handled by police departments of various regions.  Which is a pretty clear sign that the main concern was public violence and unrest, not moral issues.  Under the Indian government, the “certification” process was all placed under the power of the Bombay based board.  It is illegal to show a film in India without a certificate from this board.

This is very very unusual!  Outside of wartime, most governments do not censor public media.  Iran, which is usually held up as an example of extreme censorship, has a system similar to India.  Only, in Iran, it is not just film which is subject to such extremes, but also the press, television, literature, and the internet.  India is unique in singling out film for such incredible measures of control.  Possibly because it is still using an out-dated system, created in the 1950s before television and the internet were even such an issue; possibly because film in India has a unique position of power and ability to question authority.

Despite the censor board, and all these years and years of censorship in the countries with the 2 largest film industries (India and America), Udta Punjab is coming out, because the High Court determined that the certificate board has the right to give films ratings, and it has the right to refuse films exhibition, but it does not have the right to force cuts and changes to films with a threat of un-certification.

That’s the official court statement.  The general consensus among the public seems to be that the new board, under Pahlaj Nihalani, is extreme in its censorship.  I did find the story that Nihalani forced theaters to add a pro-Modi video onto Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, along with the Dilwale trailer, extremely disturbing.  But this particular example, of forcing massive cuts on Udta Punjab before it could be certified, that doesn’t surprise me so much.

Sholay, India’s greatest film, was forced to re-shoot it’s ending because of censor board concerns.  Bombay was forced to make changes like the color of the headbands worn by the extras in riot scenes.  Extreme censorship has been going on for years.  The only thing new about this story is that the filmmaker, Anurag Kashyap, has had the bravery to fight back against the cuts and, more importantly, the media and the public have decided to care about the story and report it and follow it.

In America, it was the media and the public that drove the need for censorship, and which still directs the concerns of the censor board; in India, it is possible that the outcry from the media and the public will lead to a loosening of censorship.



1 thought on “Udta Punjab is Coming Out! Woot! A Brief History of Film Censorship to Put this in Perspective

  1. Pingback: Second Quick News Round-Up: Amitabh and the Censor Board both make big statements | dontcallitbollywood

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