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We must not sentence the sentences

Sensitivity is important and storytellers must strive to tell better, more inclusive stories, but it is absurd to apply today’s rules to yesterday’s art

Gene Hackman in 'The French Connection'
Gene Hackman in 'The French Connection'

“Doyle is bad news—but a good cop.” That’s the tag line for William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece, The French Connection, where Gene Hackman plays unforgettable cop ‘Popeye’ Doyle. Doyle is a brutal anti-hero, unapologetically nasty and racist, qualities that while making the audience uncomfortable, give him a grimy authenticity. The film’s iconic car chase through the streets of New York showcases Doyle’s reckless disregard for civilian safety. His racially charged dialogues provide stark glimpses into the societal prejudices of the time. Doyle’s imperfect, complex nature not only pushes the boundaries of traditional heroism, but challenges audiences and is meant to make them squirm.

Not that you would realise by watching The French Connection this afternoon on The Criterion Channel, or anywhere else it may be streaming near you. Some lines of dialogue—from a film that won five Oscars, including for Screenplay and Editing— involving the n-word and another racial slur have suddenly been excised, leading to an unforgivably jarring “jump-cut”, with one character suddenly moving across a room. It’s shameful.

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(As an Indian moviegoer too used to seeing these “cuts” throughout films and television, on both the big and small screens, this may sadly feel less eventful, but to see this on The Criterion Channel, a platform that has always fiercely celebrated film-makers, is a most ominous sign.)

There is no warning before or during the film that the viewer is watching a re-edited/censored version. According to Forbes, the cut may have been made by Disney, which bought the film’s producers 20th Century Fox a few years ago, which is why the cut seems visible wherever the film is streaming. To hack away at such a culturally significant work of art— and in such an underhanded way—feels criminal.

Not that a warning would make it better. The world is going through a disgusting phase of bowdlerisation, where existing works of art are being thoughtlessly chopped and censored. We are seeing it with books of great and popular (and dead) writers like Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming and—horror of horrors—even P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote the best sentences in the English language. This censorship is being done ostensibly to take out problematic language but actually robs the work of context and intent.

The Dahl censorship feels like a Monty Python sketch. The word “black” has been changed to “dark”—even when not speaking of race—and new editions of The BFG have had “man-eating giant” replaced with “human-eating giant”. It would be funny if it weren’t atrocious. Removing the word “fat” from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory will not make that delightful book less cruel to gluttons, simply more inept.

It is hard, at this time, not to think about Ray Bradbury’s essential Fahrenheit 451. A book about the burning of books, the increasingly prescient novel had fewer people outraging against the burning only because the first books to be burnt had language that made people uncomfortable.

Art isn’t candy. It isn’t meant only to be easy.

Like Disney, the changes carried out by Dahl’s publishers Puffin can be traced to another behemoth out to scrub some intellectual property it now owns: Netflix has bought the rights to the Dahl estate. While large corporations bait performatively woke mobs eager to label things “problematic”, their game is clearly to appease current audiences and offer up the easiest “product” for the most people. Disney — carpet-bombing every theatre in the world with endless superhero and space movies (that also serve as advertisements for superhero and space movies) — would naturally be well served by this infantilisation of the audience.

We, the audience, would not. Sensitivity is important and writers and storytellers must strive to tell better, more inclusive stories that do not repeat mistakes that were once made, but it is absurd to apply today’s rules to yesterday’s art. The arbitrariness is extraordinary, and the possibilities are disastrous if these “tweaks” keep happening unchecked. Schools in Utah have banned the Bible from elementary and middle schools because a parental complaint called the holy text “sex-ridden.”

Why should we not trust ourselves to read the n-word in Mark Twain’s books or hear it said a hundred times in Quentin Tarantino’s movies? Popeye Doyle’s racism is as brazen as his love for black coffee—strong, bitter, and hard to swallow for some. That doesn’t mean those who like decaf frappuccinos get to make the rules.

Rules are made on a sliding scale, evolving with the times. Art is forever. Add a note to the preface, a disclaimer to the text or the film, start a discussion about why something in a particular work is problematic and should be abhorred but please—please—let us not begin painting blouses over Renaissance paintings and giving Michelangelo’s David a Speedo. Add an asterisk, not a fig-leaf.

Finally, it is profoundly silly to imagine that saying something nasty carries greater heft than being nasty. The behaviour of characters has, so far, been left mercifully alone in this current scissor-happy climate, but this need to watch what characters are saying gives the distinct and telling implication that words cause more harm than actions. They do not. They are just easier to cross out.

Streaming tip of the week:

This week marks 25 years of a show that broke taboos and said things that shouldn’t be said. Sex And The City is now on JioCinema, and here’s to celebrating those ladies who refused to be schooled on ladylike behaviour.

Also read: 12 songs to understand Kumar Gandharva

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.


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