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An uncensored talk

Published : Dec 16, 2015, 10:04 pm IST
Updated : Dec 16, 2015, 10:04 pm IST

As the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) continues to face ire for its extreme censorship policies, this talk by Professor William Mazzarella couldn’t have been timed any better.

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As the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) continues to face ire for its extreme censorship policies, this talk by Professor William Mazzarella couldn’t have been timed any better. A professor of anthropology from the University of Chicago, he will be presenting a special talk on Censoring India organised by the Godrej India Cultural Lab. He will talk about the history of film censorship in India and address questions pertaining to censorship. Here, he emphasises on the need to move forward from perceiving the censor board as a mere silencer. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Would you agree that censorship as a topic has never been more relevant in India The talk at Godrej India Culture Lab will be about censorship — but I will be trying to suggest that we need to rethink how we understand censorship. Rather than only seeing it as a matter of silencing, of shutting down speech, we need to look harder at how censorship itself is a kind of publicity; how it relies on mobilising the attention and indignation that surrounds controversial images. In that way, I’m hoping to suggest that censorship, contrary to the way it’s usually discussed, actually thrives on the visibility of the censoring act.

Would you be citing any personal experiences More generally, I’m hoping to present ideas that I’ve published in an academic form, in a more accessible way. I’ll also be referring to some recent censorship events and controversies, things that have happened since my book, Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity, came out in 2013.

Has anthropology always been your area of interest Why do you think studying anthropology is important in today’s turbulent global conditions I’ve studied anthropology since I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. Anthropology is important because it asks us to look at the interaction between the most public dimensions of human life and the most intimate domains of meaning. It explores some of the same things that other social sciences do — politics, social structure, and so on — but it’s also interpretive and interesting in the way that the humanities are. In fact, I see anthropology as, among other things, a critical bridge between the social sciences and the humanities.

Most of your books revolve around India to some extent. Why is India a favoured muse It’s hard to answer this question without falling into cliches. But let’s just say that the combination of the world's biggest democracy with such an extraordinarily rich and diverse media scene, not to mention the complex layering of hypermodern and ancient reference points, makes India anthropologically irresistible.

How should a censor board in any country ideally function, and to what extent should their powers be regulated The one category of spectators that I think do deserve to be protected is children. To that end, I think that it’s useful to have some kind of system whereby parents or guardians can get some sense of what a film contains before making a decision about whether or not it’s appropriate for the children under their care. But I’m not in favour of censorship as such.

How do you think the censorship process has changed in India over the years Film censorship in India has changed less than you might think since the colonial period. There have of course been some structural changes in the way that it’s organised, and the guidelines keep being modified from time to time. In the colonial period, the censors often thought in terms of racial difference: Indians, who understood as a ‘race’, were thought to be uniquely vulnerable to cinema images. After Independence, the concern shifts away from race and the vulnerable category becomes the illiterate or the so-called ‘uneducated.’ But the basic thinking remains the same: that there are some categories of people who are helplessly vulnerable to what they may see on screen and who need to be protected from themselves. If we’re talking about adults, then this kind of thinking is not only, in my view, inherently wrong, but also incompatible with democracy.

What is the role of Internet in the censorship process Of course the government has and continues to try to regulate access to various internet sites, not least pornographic ones. At the same time, we all know that people find ways to access what they want to see. I think the interesting question is why and how censorship persists despite the fact that it obviously is unable to exert tight control — even the authorities themselves admit that. So the only answer has to be that censorship is in fact not only, or not even mainly, about control. Instead, as I was saying earlier, it’s about what can be gained from harnessing the controversy around a particular set of words or images and using that controversy to bolster authority. Of course that’s always a delicate and volatile game.

You are currently working on a book, The Mana of Mass Publicity, that explores classic anthropological theories of magic and ritual. Could you give us a preview of your book The thought on which The Mana of Mass Society (which is what I’m now calling the book) is based is: people often speak of things like advertising, political charisma, and propaganda as if they were a kind of magic. But what if we were to take this claim literally What would it mean to think of mass publicity as a kind of magic And in what ways might these magical processes actually be at the very root of how our societies hang together The project is an attempt to probe the relationship between old anthropological ideas about magic and ritual and more recent critical theory takes on mass publicity.

On December 18, 2015, 5 pm At, Auditorium, (First Floor), Godrej ONE, Vikhroli (East), (Entry from Eastern Express Highway) This event is free and open to all