You’re watching movies trying to find the feelers,
You only see what we show you. – The Who, The Punk and the Godfather
There is a lot of misunderstanding it seems to me about Woody Allen refusing to release Blue Jasmine in India. Or rather, the context of the importance of this decision.
For quite some time now viewing standards of movies in Indian culture have steadily declined, not only in the theatres but also on television. When I say viewing standards have declined I am implying that there used to be an acceptable stage when things were okay. The answer is yes and no. As Laya Maheshwari writes in his diligent article on indiewire (a leading online resource on international and independent film production), the viewing of English films on commercial runs in India was always a mixed basket. Intervals, prized by theatre owners to sell snacks would interrupt a film for which no intermission was made. In addition to this Indian audiences only received a small portion of good quality Hollywood releases in a given year with the more risqué and unusual films coming to television rather than theatre and even there in censored form.
In the 90s to early 21st century, the rules played fair in that it was a logical and consistent extension of Indian society’s conservativism. No f-words (even in a TV screening of Raging Bull, its dialogues re-edited to elide all four-lettered words, it’s actually quite skillfully done), little to no nudity and some restrictions of violence. The rules as always are hypocritical and two-faced as censor laws are wont to be. For instance violence in Hindi films (which tends to be bloody, gory and brutal in its action scenes) and risqué scenes of questionable spirit were given free passes, while relatively tasteful and authentic depictions of the same by American releases were censored.
Indian films avoided facing the the axe as long as a) They toed the line, b) the context and the content wasn’t politically charged.
Censorship of movies and poor choice of quality content naturally led to the prevalence of piracy which is a casual part of everyday life in India. Sure people liked to see a movie for free, but what they liked even more was seeing a movie with no intermission, no censorship and its integrity uncompromised. Outside of a film festival, moviegoers are not likely to find this at the big screen in any multiplex or an old-fashioned single screen exhibiting a film in a commercial run. While there are other factors that lead to piracy, a great reason for this occurrence is the total decline of mainstream viewing experiences. Many of the existing policies, such as anti-smoking commercials, national anthems before screenings (which by the way is only native to Mumbai, a supposedly liberal city), only curtail these experiences even further. Policies which are consequences of the arcane censorship laws that throttle Indian cinema.
So who is to blame for this? The CBFC? The Indian government? The Anti-Smoking Lobby? Sure, but the final responsibility has to rest with Indian film-makers themselves, the prime beneficiaries of the majority of India’s box-office surplus, who, select exceptions notwithstanding, continue to make films under whatever new absurd rules and requirements sent their way.
The truth is that censorship across the history of cinema has always been combated by film-makers asserting their rights as artists, rather than waiting in line to be handed to them. American law enshrined cinema as an artform after a legal case surrounding Roberto Rossellini’s controversial film The Miracle. Within Holllywood, censorship was gradually eroded by the persistent efforts of film-makers like Otto Preminger whose Anatomy of a Murder remains startling for its dramatization of a rape trial. The generation to which Woody Allen belonged to included transgressive works by Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and films such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris.
These film-makers saw themselves as artists set on depicting life as it is and allowed themselves full freedom of imagination in realizing their vision. In India, around the same period, Satyajit Ray stepped on some toes with Devi, a film which raised the ire of Hindu fundamentalists for its ironic vision of religious experience, while Ritwik Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar ran afoul of political thugs who sabotaged its commercial run. Central to a film-maker’s resistance against censorship is the assertion of his or her identity as an artist with a vision unblemished by local dictates.
Woody Allen’s generation was the age of the auteur. The period where critics like Andrew Sarris and others imported the French “politique des auteurs” as the American “auteur theory” which argued that the director was the central unifying force of a film. This obvious truth upset many in America and didn’t extend to actual legal protection as it does in France, where the droits d’auteur allows film-makers to own actual copyright of the work. But it did help in introducing the concept of “final cut” where certain film-makers were allowed to have the final deciding voice on the editing of a film, a courtesy absent in classical Hollywood. Woody Allen’s first credited work as a director, What’s Up Tiger Lily?, was disowned by Allen because he did not have final cut at the time. He enjoys this right on every film which follows. Understanding this context explains and clarifies the statement by his publicist that states, “Due to content in the film, it cannot be shown in India in its intended manner. Therefore, the film [Blue Jasmine] is not scheduled to play there.”
Reactions in India have included several statements from Indian film industry professionals such as Milan Luthria and Shoojit Sircar issuing their commiserations for Woody Allen’s decision as well as admiration for his stance. But the truth is that it was a natural decision to take for a film-maker persistent in maintaining his artistic integrity over forty years of professional experience. The real fight has to extend away from the fairly pointless debate on the effectiveness of anti-smoking ads as stated in the unintentionally hilarious “open letter” to Woody Allen by Dr. Pankaj Chaturvedi, or smoking in general.
Industry professionals are fully aware that cigarette smoke fuels their productions. No production unit in India is bereft of piles of stray cigarette cartons. They live the truth that Indians and people around the world, will keep smoking, fully aware of the health hazards it might and might not cause, regardless of any gory message given to them. It is with this awareness that many of them step forward to argue against this stupid law. But despite this, the fact remains that Indian cinema accepts the reality of censorship, and persists in operating in conditions that represses radical freedom of expression.
Indeed, the cynical justifications for such practices are already making the rounds. Rajeev Masand, the film reviewer for CNN-IBN is also a member of the censorship board. Ostensibly a man aware of film aesthetics and the history of auteurism, he nonetheless takes the path of rational pragmatism by asserting, “If Indian filmmakers have accepted it, even if reluctantly, the others can’t say that they won’t follow the rules. Every country has its own terms for acceptability. If Mr. Allen was showing the film in China, he would have had to take out any instances of nudity. You can’t be arrogant.”
This statement by Mr. Masand seemingly implies that while Indian screens are intolerant of smoking, they are tolerant of nudity on screens. A revolution that missed me and the vast majority of Indian moviegoers I would believe. Furthermore, as repressive as China is in its laws of freedom of expression, major film-makers like Jia Zhangke continue to challenge and assert their own artistic vision. The same cannot be said of the world’s largest democracy where by and large film-makers – producers, directors, screenwriters, actors and technicians – , have never mounted significant pressure to challenge and mitigate censorship laws in India.
Woody Allen will go on making a film a year for the foreseeable future. His present form has produced some of the richest and most exciting films of the last decade, with masterworks like Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream and Midnight in Paris and underrated poetic works like To Rome With Love, You’ll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Whatever Works. Some of these movies played in India before and Match Point is a cult favorite among the college crowd, quite a few of whom anticipated the release of Blue Jasmine in India. This experience probably bodes ill for the release of future Woody Allen films in India, and also sets a precedent for other film-makers with a similar uncompromising stance on creative control. External shame might solve the immediate problem of smoking ads during a screening but the long term goal of preventing silly laws such as this and others from having effect has to be taken up by Indian film-makers themselves.