Indian films are probably the worst offenders when it comes to obnoxiously cloying potrayals of children. Except for some notable exceptions, kids in Hindi films, especially, were various unbearable munnas and munnis, such paragons of virtue and good feeling, exuding such cloying sweetness, crying with such manipulative intensity, you felt a serial killing coming on.
Films made for children suffered from the same demented portrayals and were even worse because they were the cinematic equivalent of the koochie boochie boo that grown-ups subject babies to, in the inexplicable conviction that there is such a thing as baby language. It was a depressing cycle. Children were portrayed as idiots in supposedly grown-up movies. Then those grown-ups made films for idiots and called them children’s films.
Will the proposal by the Central Board of Film Certification, to make the very slow shift to a ratings system help break these kinds of deadlocks? The proposal is that films will not have a blanket U or A certificate, but rather, be rated PG 12, PG 15—ie, suitable for children above that age if parents accompany them—or suitable for any viewer above 18.
Censorship of any kind is a tricky business. In India it has been very overt, but also representative of the more conservative side of society. Bollywood has devised a number of subversive responses to this — the sensuality of songs, the rebellion of love stories, the championing of the underdog, although, alas, no real sly humour — so that, at their best, films could at least resonate with real life to some extent, instead of merely mouthing cultural propaganda and platitudes.
The flip side of these subversions has been that it has led a to a culture of extremely adolescent titillation, in which sex is portrayed not as a range of interactions and experiences between people, but rather, as an oddity. A selling point, a scandal, a shocker, a rape, at best a little garden-variety exhibitionism and objectification, while continuing to say it’s all about loving your family. Violence, too was uncritically present in most films, under cover of being in defense of supposed goodness.
In theory, a ratings system of the kind proposed by the Censor board at least complicates the discussion about adulthood and what people can handle — in contrast to the notion that everything can be universal viewing. We might then assume that it would also lead to more interesting experiments with storytelling on the one hand, instead of Lego-block films, that are supposed to appeal to both kids and adults, consequently treating adults as kids and kids as adults. In an ideal world it might also mean that producers think seriously about children’s films in market terms, because films for children are woefully few and generally woeful only.
In reality, a ratings system is also not free of censorship, of course. It still depends on a Censor Board and committee to make decisions about suitability and objectionability based on their understanding, prejudice and open-mindedness — and we aren’t doing too well on those counts as a society generally.
But testing the limits of what complexities and realities a society is willing to deal with or what challenges to its self-image it is able to handle, is part of what the arts, including popular cinema do. Our films, squashed between the economic censorship of having to generate corporate style revenues and the homogenous puritanism of the CBFC, struggles to generate a vibrant diversity - both in terms of revenue models and storytelling. Anything to nudge that conversation to another place, and a different kind of Housefull is probably Welcome.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.