On Wednesday, the Indian government announced that, starting Aug. 1, smoking will no longer be allowed on the silver screen. New movies must be entirely smoke-free, and older films can only be presented with appropriate health warnings. What else can’t you show in Bollywood?
The rules are vague and their application inconsistent. But in most Indian films you won’t see French kissing, nudity of any kind, or excessive drug use. * Interclass romances are fair game. Modest kisses, like this one from the 1996 film Raja Hindustani, do turn up from time to time. Touchy political subjects (like religious or ethnic violence) are off limits, especially in films critical of the ruling party.
Official censorship comes from the government’s Central Board of Film Certification. The board—which is composed of actors, writers, composers, scholars, industrialists, and politicians—screens every movie made in India and assigns it a rating: unrestricted (U), unrestricted with parental guidance (UA), restricted to adults (A), or restricted to a special class (S). The board can also refuse a film outright for public exhibition and often uses this power to order the excision of offensive scenes. Producers can appeal, first to a revising committee and then to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal. But early rulings tend to be definitive. To guard against the government censors, many directors shoot more footage than they expect to use in the final cut.
In assigning its ratings, the censor board looks for scenes of violence against animals, children, women, and handicapped people, as well as those that promote drinking, drug use, sexual perversion, or criminal activity. Sexually explicit images and language are also cause for censorship: The film Raaz, for example, lost some nude scenes, and the board also took issue with a character saying, “I’m not a woman you can fuck and forget.” Any scenes that undermine the sovereignty or security of India or its “public order” are also forbidden. The documentary Final Solution ran into trouble last year for its portrayal of the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat but the film was eventually released.
Though there is a rule against obscenity in the Indian Constitution, specific film restrictions originated with the Cinematograph Act of 1952 and were updated in 1983. (Indian cinema was somewhat more permissive before independence.) A high-court ruling in 1970 affirmed the role of the government as a censor of the film industry, but insisted that decisions on content be made in context: “It is not elements of rape, leprosy, sexual immorality which should attract the censor’s scissors but how the theme is handled by the producer.”
Efforts to reform the Cinematograph Act have been unsuccessful. In 2002, Vijay Anand quit his post as chairman of the censor board after failing in a bid to update the rules. Anand wanted to create a new rating—XA—for “soft pornographic” films. (Indian “soft porn” is far tamer than the American version and refers to scenes of implied nudity and sexual acts.)
The industry does provide some self-censorship. Some actors are uncomfortable with filming on-screen kisses, and some directors prefer the current system to one with no regulation.
Explainer thanks Tejaswini Ganti of Connecticut College. Correction, June 3: The original version of this column included “Hindu-Muslim romance” among the elements rarely seen in Indian films. In fact, it’s not so uncommon. (See, for example, the movie Bombay.) (Return to the corrected sentence.)