Fox's Star India CEO Compares India's Censorship to Hollywood's Early Self-Regulation Era

Star India CEO Uday Shankar - P 2017
Courtesy of Star India

Star India CEO Uday Shankar - P

With India's filmmakers facing increasing obstacles to ascertain their creative freedom, Uday Shankar said it was "frightening" that the industry was resorting to self-censorship.

Uday Shankar, the CEO of India's 21st Century Fox-owned TV and media giant Star India, has slammed India's current censorship restrictions in a keynote address at an industry conference.

Speaking Tuesday, he compared the situation in the country with Hollywood's self-regulation era almost a century ago, stating that India's “creative minds have begun to self-censor their thoughts and have started killing ideas before they germinate so as to avoid any conflict. And that is really frightening.”

Addressing the opening day of the 18th FICCI-FRAMES conference in Mumbai, whose theme this year is Digital: Divide or Dividend, Shankar said he was optimistic about the digital potential for India's media and entertainment sector. He said that the country was “already the next big destination for global digital giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime.” The VOD rivals launched in India last year, taking on local competitors including Star India's Hotstar service.

But Shankar raised serious concerns over whether India's creative talents could respond to the rapid technological changes given “the censorship that we all have to put up with. As the world gets bolder, our censor authorities seem to be getting more and more conservative.”

Recently, India's censor board refused to certify Lipstick Under My Burkha, which had picked up various international honors, including the audience award at the Glasgow festival following wins at the Tokyo and Mumbai fests last year, stating that the film featured “abusive words, audio pornography” and more.

Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, Lipstick revolves around four Indian women who assert their personal and sexual rights.

“I understand that in 2015-16 the censor board refused certification to 77 movies,” said Shankar, adding that this figure was 47 in 2014-15 “and only 23 in the year before.”

But Shankar said that the censor board could only be partly blamed for these restrictions, claiming that it “generally reflects the dominant consensus of our society and there are increasingly more bodies, mostly self-appointed, who have taken upon themselves the task of censoring media content.”

He used the example of recent Bollywood legal satire Jolly LLB 2, released by Star India's film unit Fox Star Studios, saying that it had to be first screened for “a group of lawyers and medical professionals, who were to decide whether the scenes were appropriate or whether they insulted any profession or institution. This was despite the fact that the movie had been certified for universal release by the censor board. And this is just one example.”

But the film, a sequel to 2013's Jolly LLB, still faced a legal hurdle when a lawyer filed a petition stating that the film made “a laughing stock” of India's legal and judicial system. This led the Bombay High Court to order that some scenes be deleted before the film was eventually released last month.

Beyond just censorship woes, Shankar touched upon the Supreme Court's recent decision which has made it mandatory for cinemas to play the national anthem before every show, specifying that the audience remain standing while the anthem is played.

“By creating elaborate formal ceremonies around it, are we taking the joy out of one of the most loved and celebrated lyrics in our country, i.e., our national anthem?,” he questioned, adding that it was “frightening” that “the court order has just become yet another weapon in the hands of any goon who is keen to stamp his authority.”

Drawing comparisons with the early days of Hollywood, Shankar said that “we seem to be following the script that Hollywood had written almost a 100 years ago. In the early part of the 20th century, Hollywood had decided to self-regulate itself. It adopted a production code and insisted on its enforcement for almost 25 years. The code covered the use of profanity like “hell” and “damn,” any suggestive nudity, willful offense of any nation, race or creed and any ridicule of the clergy among other things. Doesn’t it sound familiar? The similarity with our own moral code is striking to say the least.”

But he still ended his address on an optimistic note, explaining that the advent of television stateside “along with European cinema that came into the U.S., buried this regressive moral code. The question today is, will digital play the same role for our generation and our country? The role of a progressive challenger, the role of providing a bigger canvas to creativity and creating a space for dissenting points of view. This new medium has the ability to truly democratize broadcasting.”

Organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the FICCI-FRAMES conference concludes Thursday.