Those obscured objects of desire
A blur is one of the least effective weapons in a censor's arsenal
In the recent Rajinikanth film Kaala—by the politically proclamatory director Pa Ranjith—there is a scene where a riot is sparked by throwing a pig’s head into a Mumbai mosque. We really haven’t moved much past the greased cartridges incident before the revolt of 1857, you see. Still, I suppose incitement is best left to the classic methods, and hurling chunks of pork into a mosque would indeed be met by abject horror—except that it isn’t what moviegoers got to witness.
Instead, the film had an indiscriminate dark blur tossed into a mosque. Something blurry that made people on screen cry out in anguish and run out on to the streets baying for blood, while provoking little more than mild irritation from an audience aware of which meat gets whose goat. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) officially describes its action—this blurring of the meat—as “distorted the visual of pork head" in the checklist they gave the film’s makers in exchange for a censor certificate, where they also, in parenthesis, listed the reason for this all-important blurring: “(Religious)". This basically implies that zealots are incapable of squinting.
Given the unforgivable arbitrariness of the CBFC, odd objects are blurred in Indian cinema. Several of these obfuscations have to do, unsurprisingly, with sexuality: The vibrator used by Swara Bhasker’s character in the recent smash Veere Di Wedding was blurred out, as was, in one of the more bizarre decisions, a brassiere in the film Queen. This, mind you, wasn’t even something the actress was wearing, but a prop kept on the sink. “A woman’s bra is not a danger to society," the film’s heroine, Kangana Ranaut, had justifiably said, and I suppose Akshay Kumar should be glad the entirety of the sanitary-napkin championing PadMan escaped censure.
It isn’t just meat and intimates. Last year’s Kannada film Mass Leader, starring Shivarajkumar, was forced to blur every appearance of the Indian tricolour—and there were many. Every film using the Indian flag evidently needs to get prior permission from the Union ministry of home affairs, a recent dictum that plunged films like Mass Leader into a soup. It is a film about an army officer waging war on terrorism, but, with the Indian flag removed from the screen, he ends up saluting blurred stripes.
In the 1997 Woody Allen film, Deconstructing Harry, Robin Williams plays an actor who, as he gets further and further removed from the people around him, loses so much focus that he literally becomes a blur. This metaphor of uncertainty and lack of clarity is a fine fit for the Indian censors, who seem to have absolutely no idea what they are doing and why. These are people who want scenes of violence to be “trimmed by 28%", which is why experienced directors submit versions of the film with extended action scenes just so that the cuts won’t hurt them.
What is clearer, however, is why they are doing it: The blurring we are discussing is not out of legal or technical reasons but purely out of fear. The fear of people objecting—hence one-word explanations like “religious"—and the fear of people thinking too much. These are people who fear sex, they fear bra-straps, and they fear ham (though it must be said that any performance of Shah Rukh Khan has yet to be blurred). This is patriarchy at its most feeble.
A blur is the least effective kind of censorship. We know when a woman’s bottom has been blurred, and we know which finger must have been lifted in order for a hand to suddenly disappear in a haze of pixels. I wish there were subversive film-makers around who would needlessly and provocatively blur certain portions of the image only to make us pay more attention to them. We know what we aren’t meant to be watching, and the act of blurring only makes us look closer.
We can all tell which meat it is, and we know Bhasker’s instrument of pleasure was proudly purple. Try again, censors. We can see through you.