Censorship killed the video star
From 'Kaanta Laga' to 'Miss You', many Indian music videos have faced the wrath of CBFC over the years
Mihir Joshi woke up on the morning of 1 February 2015 to the news that the music video for his song Sorry was finally being telecast on Pepsi MTV Indies, a now defunct television channel dedicated to Indian independent music. It was a personal milestone for the musician, TV anchor and former radio jockey, fulfilling his childhood dream of watching one of his own music videos on MTV. But his excitement was undercut by a minor annoyance. When his label Times Music sent the video to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which must certify any music videos before it can go on air, the review committee insisted that he mute the word “Bombay"—used only once early on—from the song and video. Joshi says he accepted the change because he just wanted to get the song’s message, a response to the infamous 2012 gang rape case in Delhi, out to as many people as possible.
But the cut rankled. So, that morning, he tweeted about it. “The song had already been on YouTube (uploading to it doesn’t require official certification of any sort) for months by the time we applied to the CBFC, and nobody had a problem with it," says Joshi. “The thought that ‘Bombay’ would be the reason that someone would have an issue with that song didn’t even come to our minds. We couldn’t understand what was happening and they didn’t give us a realistic explanation."
Joshi’s tweet got picked up by local media, and it didn’t take long for this act of censorship to become an international news story, covered by the BBC, The New York Times and Time magazine. Sorry became the most high-profile example of the arbitrary and confounding manner in which the CBFC decides which music videos to allow on our television screens. It is far from the only one. In 2013, Mumbai thrash metal act Devoid were denied certification for their Brahma Weapon music video, on the grounds that it depicted graphic violence. In October 2016, New Delhi band Friends of Linger were told that the CBFC would only give them a U/A certificate for their music video Miss You if they cut a 10-second section that showed two scantily clad men lying on a bed. In the eyes of the CBFC, even this tame wink towards a same-sex relationship was too provocative and “intimate" to be allowed on television. The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) eventually overturned that decision. But—as with Sorry—the CBFC committee’s initial ruling exemplifies the way in which the censor board has appointed itself moral guardian.
This is an attitude that dates back to 2006, when the information and broadcasting ministry issued a notification stating that all music videos would require a censor certificate from the CBFC before broadcast. The notification was prompted by a Bombay high court ruling on a writ petition filed by St Xavier’s College professor Pratibha Naitthani, and reflected the outrage by consumer groups at the proliferation of raunchy music videos on television in the early 2000s, usually as accompaniments to remixes of old Bollywood songs. Vinay Sapru and Radhika Rao’s music videos, such as the wildly popular Kaanta Laga, were particularly notorious. And once public outcry against obscenity opened the door for censorship on television, it didn’t take long before the CBFC started clamping down on videos that were too political or pushed the envelope in terms of aesthetic or content.
“We know we won’t get certification without cutting out the heart of the video, so for our recent videos we didn’t even bother to apply," says Stefan Kaye, the keyboard player for New Delhi ska/reggae/punk act The Ska Vengers, whose music is often critical of the state. For their 2012 track Rough And Mean, an ode to a rebellious, sexually adventurous woman named Shaheen, the group was forced to make a very different version of the music video in order for it to pass the censors. “The process can be very long, you’re often held up for months. And it can be so ridiculous, they had a problem with the word ‘parliament’ being used in a friend’s music video. So a lot of self-censorship is put into place, anticipating what they’re going to cut."
Often, content gets censored even before the music video reaches the CBFC. Most TV channels will run all music videos by their legal and/or standards and practices teams, who will flag anything they feel might offend the censors. In the absence of any clear guidelines, the fear of lawsuits and punitive action sometimes leads broadcasters to wield the scissors with even more zeal than the censor board would. And since this is internal self-censorship, the content producer is left with no legal recourse.
In 1999, lyricist Javed Akhtar had teamed up with rock band Pentagram and singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan for The Price Of Bullets, a song in response to the Kargil war, only to have music channels refuse to broadcast the song without any explanation. “All channels are very careful about vetting anything that goes on air, and this also extends to shows that don’t require a CBFC certificate," says Nikhil Udupa, former senior manager for content and programming at Pepsi MTV Indies. “Shows like Roadies and Splitsvilla manage to stay on air because the money they bring in offsets the money you end up spending on lawsuits. But nobody wants to fight for music videos."
This mechanism of censorship and self-censorship in the broadcasting industry is one of the reasons that the music video in India hasn’t achieved the heights it has in the US and Europe. With politics, sexuality and violence off the table, music videos in India rarely try to reflect or offer commentary on society. And the artists who do try to push the envelope with their videos, like The Ska Vengers, understand that the trade-off would be never getting broadcast on television. Though, perhaps, with the rise of digital content consumption, that’s no longer as raw a deal as it used to be. “If there was a mainstream platform supporting music videos, then it may have been worth it, but there isn’t really," says Udupa. “The kind of prestige that getting on TV used to have is not there any more."
For artists like Joshi, though, being featured on television still has its charms. “Even though digital is the big thing right now, I think every artist wishes that their content goes on television," he says. “I just wish the government treats Indian television viewers as intelligent people who are capable of watching something and not getting immediately swayed by it."