- Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema by Monika Mehta
Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema emerges with a handful of other recent books as an essential contribution to the dynamic field of South Asian film studies, as well as studies of film censorship. Mehta (who, in full disclosure, has collaborated with me as a coauthor) has in the past written widely cited articles on the topic of Bombay film and censorship. While she revisits some of these earlier arguments and subjects in this book, the arguments are further clarified and placed within the context of film studies as a whole, to be made relevant to a [End Page 162] wider readership.1 The book’s overwhelming strength is its consistently rich array of theoretical and methodological approaches and their grounded applications. Mehta notes that her own inquiry into the topic began with Foucault’s distinction “between asking a question that begins with ‘how’ and asking one that begins with ‘why’ or ‘who.’”2 Questioning the practice of censorship and its entanglement with gender and sexuality on these lines provokes Mehta to define a more expansive vision of censorship in which the practice and operation of “cutting” is not necessarily limited to the state but also includes actions by directors and editors, audiences who select some films over others, and scholars who focus on some films over others. Viewing censorship in these terms produces a fascinating rupture between subject and practice that results in a constant blurring of the identities of players and processes, as well as of those identities’ meanings and locations.
As Mehta herself notes, existing explorations of film censorship have been limited by their methodologies and reliance on archival research and secondary scholarly sources, often to the exclusion of any close readings of the text and qualitative fieldwork. Furthermore, she notes a troubling tendency in current scholarship to restrict the definition of censorship to prohibition, which then fails to acknowledge that the practice of censorship can exclude and include. As an example, she mentions one study that discusses censorship’s engagement with politically controversial films such as Bombay (Mani Ratnam, 1995) and War and Peace (Anand Patwardhan, 2002) to forward the Hindu Right’s agenda while excluding dissident voices—without considering, on the other side, the Central Board of Film Certification’s (CBFC) certification of Dilwale dulhania le jayenge (The Brave Hearted Will Take Away the Bride; Aditya Chopra, 1995), which proposed its own more inclusive redefinition of the Indian nation. Viewing the CBFC as a solely prohibitive agent discourages other readings that acknowledge the “micropractices” involved in censorship, which include not only cutting but also the practices of certification and classification.3 Mehta thus expands the focus of censorship from the site of state censorship and its players to include its application and dialogue with film production and reception.
In the first chapter, Mehta situates her work in the context of Aruna Vasudev’s Liberty and License in the Indian Cinema, which constructs the state and the act of censorship as an act of prohibition and relies primarily on government reports and parliamentary [End Page 163] debates; it has exerted an undue influence on studies of censorship in India.4 Mehta also cites Annette Kuhn’s Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, which defines how acts of censorship categorized and used both films and audiences in Britain, as a salient departure point for her own work, which she extends through the practice of qualitative fieldwork and a consideration of censorship as cutting, classification, and certification across the realms of the state, film production, and reception.5 The depiction of sexuality and its adherence to and/or digression from “Indian tradition” has naturally represented itself as a frequent focus of film censorship in India. Through her consideration of the widely varied processes and realms engaged in the practice of censorship within a Foucauldian framework, Mehta argues that debates on sexuality in Bombay cinema “actually produce the very forms of sexuality they claim to regulate.”6
The second chapter offers a historical overview of...