MUMBAI May 30 When Bollywood film-maker Kunal
Deshmukh set out to make "Jannat 2" (Heaven 2), a raunchy tale
about arms dealing with plenty of swearing and bare skin, he
ended up shooting two versions - one for cinema audiences, and
the other for television.
Deshmukh was not being extravagant. Like many Indian movie
producers and TV broadcasters, he walked a tightrope of catering
to the tastes of a rapidly modernising but largely conservative
country, whose censors have scant tolerance for adult content.
Movie-makers like Deshmukh risk seeing their work chopped to
pieces on a censor's editing floor, or banned from television
altogether if it is deemed unsuitable for family viewing.
"I didn't want to take a chance. TV rights for movies are
important revenue earners and I would like my movie to be shown
at a prime-time slot," Deshmukh told Reuters.
"I would much rather spend some time and re-shoot certain
scenes so that they are fit for TV."
The tussles over what is and what is not acceptable material
reflect a wider debate about censorship in a country proud of
its status as the world's largest democracy, but which has
witnessed several controversies over free speech this year.
"It's ridiculous. You would think there would be some space
for self-regulation, but this has become arbitrary," says
Paritosh Joshi, a former member of the Indian Broadcasting
Federation, an industry body that looks at content regulation.
In February, Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal
sought to calm fears of a China-style crackdown on companies
like Google and Facebook after a court ordered two dozen firms
to block material that could offend religious groups.
THINKING OF EVERYONE
Regulating content is an unwieldy job in a country of 1.2
billion that has witnessed an explosion in its TV and media
industry since the start of India's economic boom more than two
decades ago. In that time, the country went from having two
state-run channels to nearly 500 private ones.
India had 146 million TV-viewing households in 2011, more
than the United States with 114 million, according to an
estimate by the global information company Nielsen. TV
penetration was at 61 percent last year as compared to 98
percent in China, according to consulting firm KPMG.
Only movies aired on TV are required to get a censor
certificate. Broadcasters have a set of regulations that they
have to follow.
Making content suitable for family audiences includes
beeping out words such as "ass", commonly heard on American
shows. The subtitles in India for such shows often swap an
offensive word with a more palatable substitute - so "ass" could
become "rear" or "behind".
Also on the black list are words such as "beef", as the cow
is considered holy by India's Hindu majority, and "sucks".
Deshmukh isn't the only one to have struggled in India, home
to the world's largest movie industry.
"The Dirty Picture", a film about the life of a 1980s South
Indian soft-porn star, which won accolades from audiences and
critics alike, was stopped hours before its television premiere
in April after two court petitions objected to its content.
This was after the makers of the film were asked to make 59
cuts in the movie so that it could be rated U/A, India's version
of a Parental Guidance rating, for television.
"Television is a much more mass medium than the movies, so
we have to ensure that content is suitable. This is a huge
country, you have to think of everyone," the country's censor
board chief, Leela Samson, told Reuters.
Sitting in a cubicle in swanky glass-and-chrome office in
Mumbai's bustling suburb of Malad, Eliza Johny is in charge of
sanitizing content for Sony Pix, part of a media group that is
majority-owned by the movie studio Sony Pictures.
Her job involves watching two movies every day. She peers at
the 14-inch television on her desk, watching Jennifer Aniston
whisper sweet nothings to Aaron Eckhart in the 2009 romantic
comedy "Love Happens".
She then checks the subtitles on her computer screen, making
sure there are no objectionable scenes or words spoken. Then,
she rewinds and watches the movie again.
It's a tedious process, but a necessary one.
"We reach more than 20 million people in India. There's a
lot at stake. You cannot afford to offend anyone," Sunder Aaron,
who heads Sony Pix, told Reuters.
India's Broadcast Content Complaint Council, set up to look
at objectionable TV content, has received more than 4,500
complaints from viewers in less than a year since it was set up.
American shows like "Sex and the City", "Modern Family" and
"Californication" figure in the list of complaints, as do Indian
TV shows like "Roadies", which airs on MTV.
Tight regulations mean broadcasters like Aaron have to be
careful what kind of content they pick for Indian audiences,
disappointing a growing base of English-speaking viewers who
want to watch content at the same time as U.S. viewers do.
"We have picked shows like "Boardwalk Empire" and "True
Blood" for India, but know that a show like "Sopranos" would
never work here because there would just be too many cuts," says
Shruti Bajpai, Country Head of the TV network HBO.
Bajpai began airing the second season of HBO's acclaimed
"Game of Thrones" series at the end of May, but admits that it
is hardly the same version as shown in the United States.
"But in a country of a billion people, it's better to show
the show than not at all", she said.
(Reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar; editing by Matthias Williams
and Elaine Lies)