Uday Shankar slams growing censor raj & conservatism in a digital era

Annual conference on media and entertainment, FICCI Frames 2017, has commenced in Mumbai today. The theme for this year’s conference is ‘Digital: Divide or Dividend’. Delivering the theme address, Uday Shankar, Chairman, FICCI Media & Entertainment Committee and Chairman & CEO, Star India, celebrated the rapid adoption of digital in India. At the same time, a major part of his address also dwelled on the censorship and conservatism that is increasingly beginning to impact creative freedom. 

He referred to the recent attack on the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali-directed film ‘Padmavati’, as well as the special screening done for the Akshay Kumar starrer ‘Jolly LLB – 2’ before its theatre release. 

We reproduce his complete speech at FICCI Frames 2017… 

Their excellencies High Commissioner Mr Nadir Patel and Mayor Mr John Tory, Secretary I&B Ministry Mr Ajay Mittal, Joint Secretary Department of Commerce Mr Sudhanshu Pandey, Mr Pankaj Patel, Rakeysh Ji, Didar Ji, Jacqueline Ji and friends from the world of media & entertainment. 

Are we going to see a digital divide or a digital dividend? I am sure we will hear a lot from all of you in the next couple of days, but personally I find predicting the future to be a tricky business – especially when it involves adoption of new technology. 

Just a year ago, at this very venue, there was a lively discussion on digital adoption. In less than a year, we are past that tipping point in this country. The distance that India has travelled in adopting internet-based behaviour is nothing short of remarkable. From buying goods and services to ordering in, we seem to have done it forever. India is now one of the largest markets for mobile applications – be it by volumes of downloads, consumption of video or e-commerce, for which it has already emerged as the next frontier. On the other hand, the conversation last year was about how many more unicorn start-ups will we see; this year it is about how many lame horses will have to be put down. Fortunately, the digital story for the M&E sector continues to look exciting and it is already the next big destination for the global digital giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime. The stories of bottomless war-chests may or may not be hyperbole, but, it does give us a sense of the competition that they see from home-grown digital enterprises like Hotstar, Voot and the others. If there is one thing we know for sure, it is that this year we will see a lot more lively activity on this front. The technology that some of us have introduced in this country is as good, if not better, than the best in the world. Combined with the reset in costs and quality benchmarks led by Reliance Jio, this has driven the adoption by the Indian consumer at a breathtaking pace. 

But while we celebrate this rapid growth, today I would like to point out a somewhat disturbing trend. A trend that in the long run is likely to undo a lot of gains that we have made in the last few decades. I am concerned if the Indian creative mind is in a position to respond to the pace of technological change with an equally rapid evolution in its creativity. The key reason for this is, of course, the censorship that we all have to put up with. As the world gets bolder, our censor authorities seem to be getting more and more conservative. Even a word like ‘saali’ has to be silenced in a film. The city names must be absolutely correct and contemporary and of course don’t go anywhere near discussions of women’s issues – let alone female sexuality. I understand that in 2015-16 the Censor Board refused certification to 77 movies. This number was 47 in 2014-15 and only 23 in the year before. But can we lay all the blame on the board itself? In my view, the board generally reflects the dominant consensus of our society and there are increasingly more bodies, mostly self-appointed, who have taken upon themselves the task of censoring media content. The refrain seems to be – I don’t like the legend or the myth on which your story is based, so I will burn down your sets. I don’t like a character, so I will not let you release your film. If you say you are going to do a show of busting fake godmen and gangsters, there is pre-emptive action. And what is becoming alarming now is that sometimes even the forums that you would seek redressal at are more inclined to bless the street side censorship than speak for the freedom of expression. 

Take for instance, the example of the movie ‘Jolly LLB – 2’. A few days before the release of the movie, we were asked to screen it to a group of lawyers and medical professionals, who were to decide whether the scenes were appropriate or whether they insulted any profession or institution. This was despite the fact that the movie had been certified for universal release by the Censor Board. 

And this is just one example. There is a long list of instances where the creative community has been bullied into changing its output to suit the needs of someone or the other in India. It seems that there are always people lurking in the shadows. Their sole job is to stretch and explore every piece of content that could be potentially offensive to someone. 

The openness of the internet was supposed to lead to greater plurality of opinions, instead it has created a violent polarity. A forced extremism on every matter that has made gray the least acceptable colour in all discourse. As a society we have raised the stakes of every argument to narrowly legal and brutally physical consequences. There seems to be no room left to have civil debates and no place for those who disagree. Punishment for disagreement seems to have become the norm. The institutions tasked with protecting expression and plurality, seem to be at loggerheads with the objective itself. By creating elaborate formal ceremonies around it, are we taking the joy out of one of the most loved and celebrated lyrics in our country, that is, our National Anthem? What’s frightening is that the court order has just become yet another weapon in the hands of any goon who is keen to stamp his authority. We are rapidly descending into a mindset where the most critical objective of a work of art is to make sure that it offends nobody no matter how many thematic or creative compromises it has to make. This is the most worrying part – that creative minds have begun to self-censor their thoughts and have started killing ideas before they germinate so as to avoid any conflict. And that is really frightening. The advocates of this vandalism claim that unique measures must be taken to protect our unique culture. 

Let me tell you there is nothing unique about these methods. We seem to be following the script that Hollywood had written almost 100 years ago. In the early part of the 20th century, Hollywood had decided to self-regulate itself. It adopted a production code and insisted on its enforcement for almost 25 years. The code covered the use of profanities like ‘hell’ and ‘damn’, any suggestive nudity, wilful offense of any nation, race or creed and any ridicule of the clergy among other things. 

Doesn’t it sound familiar? The similarity with our own moral code is striking to say the least. Interestingly, television that was just arriving in American homes then, emerged as the challenger to this regime. Along with European cinema that came into the US, television buried this regressive moral code. 

The question today is – will digital play the same role for our generation and our country? The role of a progressive challenger, the role of providing a bigger canvas to creativity and creating a space for dissenting points of view. This new medium has the ability to truly democratise broadcasting. 

It offers the creative community the rare opportunity to rethink from scratch their art and how it is communicated. Only when modern technology and contemporary creativity truly come together, will we create a compelling and powerful media and entertainment offering.


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