When Bollywood filmmaker Kunal Deshmukh set out to make Jannat 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 modernizing, but largely conservative country, whose censors have scant tolerance for adult content.
Moviemakers 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 said.
The tussles over what is and what is not acceptable material reflect a wider debate about censorship in a country proud of being the world’s largest democracy, but which has witnessed several controversies over free speech this year.
In February, Indian Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal sought to calm fears of a China-style crackdown on companies like Google after a court ordered two dozen firms to block material that could offend religious groups.
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 last year, more than the US with 114 million, according to 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.
“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,” said the country’s censor board chief, Leela Samson.
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.”
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 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 is 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,” said Sunder Aaron, who heads Sony Pix.
India’s Broadcast Content Complaint Council has received more than 4,500 complaints from viewers in less than a year since it was set up.
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 US viewers.