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This article titled ‘Censorship and Women’ is written by Akriti Raina and discusses the use of censorship in curbing the free and artistic expression of women in the media.
I. Censorship and Women – Introduction
The patriarchal society along with its gender-biased norms have always attempted to portray a stereotypical image of women in the society as well as curb the representation of women in a manner that further these norms.
Censorship has been a tool to depict women in a light that is in line with the morality and standards set by society for women. Any artistic representation of women that is viewed as morally upsetting as per the view of patriarchal society is restricted. This includes scenes depicting rape, harassment, sexual autonomy, nudity even though they might be highlighting an important social issue.
Even though the morality of a society is changing there is still a stigma that comes in way of free representation of women.
II. Statutory Provisions
The Cinematograph Act, 1952 was created to censor those films that were found to be obscene. No doubt censorship is important to prevent the unrestricted display of elements that harm the peace of the society yet censorship cannot become a tool for silencing the voices of free expression and representation of women and their voices in the media.
Other acts such as the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986 also restrict images found to be degrading to women.
Thus, any representation which is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or have the effect of depraving or corrupting someone is termed as obscene under section 292 of the Indian Penal Code.
Part IV of the Cinematography Act deals with the certification of films. The board while certifying the films has to keep in mind that the film is not obscene or vulgar so as to offend the human susceptibilities. Scenes that degrade or denigrate women are also to be censored and scenes related to rape or molestation are also to be avoided.
Section 2(c) of the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986, provides a very broad meaning to the words “indecent representation”, a depiction of the body part of women, or any kind of figure or form that is indecent, derogatory and denigrating women or is likely to deprive the public morality.
Section 4(c) further prevents the production of any film showing women in an indecent manner.
The Cable and Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 also prohibits the broadcasting of any kind of obscene materials on air by the cable television network.
Similarly, section 67 of the IT Act, 2000 prohibits publishing or transmitting any kind of material which is lascivious or obscene and it has the effect of depraving any person who watches, reads and hears it.
III. Hicklin Test
The foundations of what is considered as obscenity originated in the case of Regina v. Hicklin (1868), where obscenity was seen as something having the tendency of depraving and corrupting the minds of those who are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.
In Ranjit Udeshi judgement (1965), the Supreme Court adopted the Victorian era Hicklin Test, where it was modified by Justice Hidaytullah who stated that sex and nudity in art and literature were not enough to be considered as evidence of obscenity.
One of the famous cases on censorship in India is the case of Bobby Art International, Etc. v. Om Pal Singh Hoon & Ors. (1996), wherein grating of A certificate was challenged by a few members of the Thakur community as being offensive to them.
The film in question was “Bandit Queen” based on the life of Phoolan Devi. Phoolan was married off to a man old enough to be her father and was beaten and raped by him. She was further raped by the upper caste men of the village community.
At every stage of her life, she was subjected to extreme humiliation by mean and ultimately, she ended up becoming a dacoit and killing twenty Thakurs of the village Behmai.
The examining committee of the Censor Board referred it to the revising board, which granted it the “A” certificate to the film. This was challenged. The tribunal directed the reduction of scenes depicting visuals of the man’s bare posterior and some torture scenes.
However, the tribunal held that reduction of scenes where Phoolan Devi was naked and being paraded or the torture by police etc. could not be deleted as the same created sympathy towards the unfortunate women in particular.
However, the court of the first instance quashed the “A” certificate and granted an injunction against the screening of the film. Division Bench of the court upheld this judgement and viewed the rape scene as disgusting and indecent.
The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the High Court. Justice Bharucha referred to the Indian case of Abbas v. Union of India (1970) where Hidayatullah, CJ, held that “the standards that we set for our censors must make a substantial allowance in favour of freedom thus, leaving a vast area for creative art to interpret life and society with some of its foibles along with what is good.”
The court also referred to the cases of Raj Kapoor v. State (1979), Samaresh Bose v. Amal Mitra (1985) and the State of Bihar v. Shailabala Devi (1952)and noted that these cases had emphasized that vulgar writing is not necessarily obscene and consideration must be given to the writing as a whole.
The court held that the film Bandit Queen narrated a powerful story. The scene where the protagonist was humiliated by being stripped naked and paraded around, could not have intended effect in any manner other than by explicitly showing the scene.
Further, rape and sex were not glorified in the film but used to focus on the trauma and emotional turmoil of the victim to invoke sympathy for her and disgust for the rapist.
Thus, the court held that the message of a serious film should be recognized and the test to be applied should be whether the individual scenes advance the film’s message. “A” rating would be sufficient to caution adults and there was no need to censor them. A film illustrating the consequences of social evils must necessarily show that social evil.
Thus, the court held that it must be left to the experts to determine what is necessary and what is not.
In MF Hussain judgement (2008) and Perumal Murugan judgement (2016), the court held that a material cannot be held to be provocative simply because it is unpalatable to society. In Aveek Sarkar v. State of West Bengal (2014), the Supreme Court did away with the Hicklin’s Test and adopted the American Roth Test and thus, obscenity has to now be evaluated as an average person would.
The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 2012, expands the application of the Act to social media, however, the problem lies in the ambiguity inherent in the concepts of what can be considered as “depraving” or “lascivious” as these are largely left for the judges to interpret, which might sometimes result in a patriarchal evaluation of the case at hand.
An unclear demarcation of what is obscene or vulgar leaves too much space for loopholes and an interpretation to suit the ideals of the society. Thus, what is required is to not confuse.
A good example would be that of Shefali Jariwala in the infamous song Kanta Laga or sensual role of Mallika Sherawat in her movies, both of these women were portrayed as a national disgrace for normalizing concepts of body tattoos and sexual autonomy of women which were and is still largely viewed as a taboo in the Indian mainstream Society.
In India representations such as pornography and obscenity have come to be understood in similar terms. However, feminists against censorship argue in favour of the multiplicity of images and the creation of spaces for alternative images.
What needs to be understood is that obscenity is subjective owing to the perceptions of those who are judging it. It is not the bold representation of women that is antithetical to decency but rather the fact that the safe and adequate spaces required for such representations are largely absent in media.
Thus, the need of the hour is to define precisely what would constitute a corrupting depiction and allow a neutral evaluation of films and artistic materials by the stakeholders of the women community itself to judge whether a particular representation is obscene or empowering.
 Ibid., 
 Ibid., 
 https://indiankanoon.org/doc/195958005/ Aveek Sarkar & Anr vs State Of West Bengal And Anr on 3 February 2014, Available Here.