Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Daily Belly

And Now A Word on Words (& Images)

Free speech for the mediated public comes at the cost of many logics, and most starkly those irritating ellipses (blip! blip!) that have begun to slowly creep into our media texts and images, raising their heads in our midst as our markets compete for more eyeballs and earholes, trying to entice us in the rousing race for consumption.

Never mind, you may say, even in real life, we know we are fond of swearing by our radishes, potatoes, our fellow rice-gnawers and our wife’s brother, and asses and dogs and bulls and, excuse me, by our pubic hair, and on and on.

Wonder how we absorbed this elaborate tradition without having to attend any formal orientation and that soon we may resort to blips all over to save our wicked faces. Just too many scrubs to suffer for too little a sense? Well, without them, the police could be on their way any minute to deal with our viewing habits.

We know too well that profanity is becoming more common in our interpersonal exchanges. Not a day goes by without us overhearing obscene remarks, curse words, insulting cries in our streets, and other public places. If you are not a swearing type, you must have become angry or embarrassed to observe that cusses or expletives are not absent even in some of our work places and family living rooms. But we don’t expect the police to be around to sanitize these environments. What is it with the movies or the media that they irritate these keepers of law and order?

This brings me to the news of police raid on Gopi Krishna Movies in Chabahil, Kathmandu this Sunday evening for defying the objections from our country’s film censor board. Looks like our showmen don’t like the blips either, or else, why would they go ahead and screen Delhi Belly, the Bollywood movie said to be replete with fowl language? Why would they like to earn the wrath of our district administration and invite a ban on the movie?

The fact of the matter is relations have strained in recent years between the censor board and the studios or film makers. The idea of a moral police, and that appointed by the government, has simply become abominable at a time when centuries-old structures of power and control have been demolished to give way to self-determination. Who would want a big brother minding you around, if you think you can stand on your own feet and walk the walk: I’m not a child any longer; don’t tell me what I can and cannot do!

Sounds reasonable, but self-regulation is part of any growing up and some types of bounds are necessary in the movie business in regards to their content and style just as such bounds are required in our daily lives. So the question at the heart of this issue is who should set those bounds, of what types, and with what consequences?

When the government recently amended the Film (Production, Exhibition and Distribution) Act 2057 (2001 AD), some hoped that the winds of change would lead to a reformed certification system. Oddly, the revised rules increased the scope of prior censorship. They also imposed further restrictions on the distribution of foreign films, inviting more criticism of the board’s powers.

I am not sure whether the present censorship regime can indefinitely withstand the winds of change that call for either altogether doing away with the existing certification body or replacing it with an autonomous or independent rating system. Not to paint this as just a power issue between the board and the studios, I invite readers to consider the audience, the wider public, above all, in this debate.

The idea of an ideal audience entails discerning citizens, rather than passive consumers subject to the ups and downs of market forces. They are torn between the greed of capitalism and the benevolence of democracy. Under obsolete modes of governmental control over what they can watch or listen to, they, however, cannot exercise their democratic capabilities and are easily swayed by the already unruly markets.

By all indications, the market is winning the race. This is clear from frequent reports that consumption of pornography is rampant in the country, that many Internet cafés serve as cells for such content, that TV serials and newspapers’ centrerspreads are becoming increasingly obscene, and that cell phones are made into conduits for lewd images and texts. This is the “daily belly” of our (private) realities, our mediated lives. No blips, whatsoever, except for the censors’ occasional cuts in movies screened in commercial theatres. Therefore, are we still fooling ourselves that commerce continues to be a physically located space, like Asan Bazaar or Birgunj Bhansar?

How many of us, especially with kids in the family, are having hard time to avoid virtual commercial spaces that spill all over the TV channels in our living rooms, that come with our pocket cell-phones? As mobile phone use continues to explode (currently, 10 million subscribers) this space will only continue to grow bigger. Already, many don’t have to go to Gopi Krishna; if they want, they can as well download in their personal devices the censored clips.

I think that the current traffic-police approach of random action over some content to manage many others through fear-mongering should stop. Only a user-focused mechanism, not censor-oriented, or producer- or distributor-oriented approach will serve to maintain the health of our daily bellies. The government’s role should be limited to that of a facilitator in order to create an environment where the audience rules in the selection and consumption of what they consider to be nutritious content.

In this, an independent rating system, coupled with strong civic education on media use and their effects, is a must. We should not have to look at India, Pakistan or Bangladesh as our models. In many areas of media reforms, including film certification, they are struggling with the same questions that trouble us. India is considering revamping its film rating system to make it less stringent. Yet, government control there is not likely to go away for a foreseeable future.

As a matter of principle, I favor the independent rating system, a standard practice in many open societies. For example, the rating model of Motion Picture Association of America is a voluntary system that helps to classify movies based on whether they are suitable to certain age groups. However, in our case, we need a more comprehensive approach, which addresses both the governmental and parental concerns over the nature of content, not only in movies, but also on TV, in the Internet and mobile devices. Given the television deluge in our lives, 24/7, there is a real urgency in developing a separate or an integrative rating system for programs as well as advertisements that air in our TV channels.

But for these systems to be relevant to our lives and to be effective and useful, they have to be put into practice. These rating systems should be invariably accompanied by formal and informal media education programs for the general public, in families and schools, among parents, teachers and students, designed to inculcate the faith in the audience, and to enable and empower them to choose between nutritious and harmful content not only in virtual spaces but also in interpersonal and social situations. They don’t have to suffer the ellipses simply because they are there.

Published in Republica, July 6, 2011.