Censoring The Intelligent Film Spectator

The recent Udta Punjab, Jolly LLB, Lipstick under my Burkah and Ka Bodyscapes decisions of the Central Board of Film Certification (“Censor Board”) have raised questions and spurred debates about the   need for censorship by prior restraint in India. Judicial Review of some of the Censor Board’s decisions, and their close to complete reversal by Courts highlights the subjectivity in the certification system, and one cannot help wondering if the circumstances under which the Cinematograph  Act, the  legislation that  brought prior restraint of films into effect , continue to prevail in today’s social context. When the Constitutional validity of the Cinematograph Act was challenged in 1970, the Supreme Court in the K. A. ABBAS case justified the law by stating that film expression stirs deep feelings in the spectators unlike any other art form because of its appeal to visual and aural senses of people. The Court in the case gave great credence to the influencing effect of life like moving images accompanied by sounds on human mind.
Does the Court’s 1970 justification, reiterated by many subsequent judgments, hold good even in today’s social context? One can argue forcefully against the contemporary relevance of the Court’s ratio based on many grounds, and the nature and personality of today’s film spectator is one of them. Films are generally judged by seeing them through the eyes of an ordinary spectator, and the nature of the spectator therefore assumes very high importance for assessing the need for pre-censorship. Unlike the innocent, gullible spectator of the last century, today’s spectator is intelligent, well informed and circumspect, and the justification for pre-censorship of film expression may no longer be valid.
When the technology to merge motion pictures with sounds came into being, it was a path breaking invention, and as expected, transformed the entertainment industry in many ways. Theater lost its appeal, performances lost their gloss, and traditional art forms lost their edge. The technology gave birth to a delightful, captivating, accessible form of entertainment in the form of motion pictures accompanied by sounds. The closed environments in which films were largely seen heightened their effect on people, and at some level, films had the ability to influence their minds. An ordinary film spectator of those days was an innocent person with a gullible mind, who was enchanted by the art form, consumed it whole heartedly, and could be swayed.
But, that person doesn’t exist any more, and today’s spectator is a totally different human being. Unlike the old one, the contemporary film spectator is intelligent and well informed with a circumspect mind. She cannot be easily convinced, engaged or influenced. Contrary to the old spectator, she has access to several means and modes of information and entertainment on a variety of devices ranging from mobile phones to computers at her behest, and films are just one among many of her entertainment options. With the advancements in communication technology and emergence of social networks, her mind is continuously engaged, jumping from thought to thought, and always distracted and circumspect. Unlike earlier, watching films in theaters is just one among many modes of entertainment today, and films do not have the ability to hold the spectator’s attention beyond the theater, let alone influence her, or stir deep feelings in her.
At best, a film lingers in the contemporary spectators mind for a few hours after the show, and pre-censorship of such an expression is no longer justifiable. Prior restraint of films directed at today’s intelligent, informed spectator is futile, and accomplishes very little or nothing. The spectator can take care of herself, and does not need the help of the Censor Board to filter film expression and save her, the society, or the country, from the so called ‘Bad Expression.’ As suggested by the Benegal Committee constituted in 2016, it is time for the Censor Board to function purely as a certification body, and put an end to its power of pre-censorship and its subjective exercise.
To quote Walter Lippman in the Supreme Court’s words (S. Rangarajan Case),
“When men act on the principle of intelligence, they go out to find the facts…. When they ignore it, they go inside themselves and find out what is there. They elaborate their prejudice instead of increasing their knowledge.”
Free expression of films is integral to democracy, and it cannot be allowed to be held hostage by prejudice. Viewing film censorship through the eyes of the old, outdated spectator would be falling prey to irrationality, bias and prejudice, and will not amount to an intelligent review of facts. When seen through the eyes and mind of the intelligent, informed spectator, who has a circumspect mind and cannot be easily influenced, pre-censorship has very little or no value in the contemporary social context.

Extrinsic Note on Impact of Films on a Spectator

Not many empirical studies have been conducted on the  impact of films on spectators, and the extent of the impact, if any.  The few studies that have been carried out focus on extremities in films such as violence, smoking, rape, etc., and draw conclusions on short term and long term effects of extended viewing of films with such content. For example, one study carried out by a Professor in Pakistan concludes that action films encourage aggressive and criminal behavior among delinquents (Salim, 2013). Another study  on violent content in music videos suggests that violent media  content can promote aggressive feelings and behavior (Anderson and Carnagey, 2002). None of these studies are conclusive about the extent of influence of content on film spectators, and the period of such influence after the film content is consumed.
An article by Oakley  on the theory of film spectatorship postulates that spectators experience and respond to films based on three aspects, story of the film, medium of enjoyment, and the film’s real world context. The extent of influence of  a scene in the film is estimated to be 15-60 seconds, after which, the spectator’s mind moves  on. Another study points out that content  in films promotes mixed feelings (Aurier and Guintcheva
, 2015). Though some studies predict short and long term negative impact of films on spectators, most of those studies consider the out dated spectator with limited entertainment access.
Dr. Kalyan C. Kankanala,
IP Attorney, Professor and Author.

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