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Bollywood & Sex - a BBFC Perspective

Today's Bollywood producers and directors are well aware that sex sells. But how does the BBFC deal with classifying material for audiences that have been used to more wholesome depictions of love and romance?

Date 02/06/2005

Bollywood directors have recently made a pragmatic shift in their style of film-making, faced as they are with urban audiences on the Indian subcontinent grown increasingly blasé about the traditional no-go area of sex due to the plethora of western channels available on TV. Additionally Bollywood’s film directors also have the pressures of responding to the box-office demands of diaspora audiences in the UK and America that were previously out of reach. As a consequence, it is now no longer so rare for a Bollywood film to contain lip-to-lip kisses, nor even scenes of a sexual nature, although on-screen sex itself remains the last, lingering taboo.

This phenomenon peaked in 2003 and could, at least partly, be attributed to the Indian film industry’s experimentation with ways to counteract the recession of the previous year that saw 90% of all film releases result in flops that incurred losses totalling £50 million. One of the first attempts at this new bold style was Khwaish that used the promise of its 17 on-screen kisses liberally in the film’s pre-release publicity. Soon after this came Jism, the story of a woman exploring her sexuality that its writer, Mahesh Bhatt, purportedly made a deliberate gamble with, eventually silencing his critics with a runaway hit. Oops! – a tale of male strippers – followed and, by the time, Boom was released, with its incredible scene of implied fellatio under a table, Bollywood audiences were learning to deal with this incredible new facet to a familiar old genre.

Unlike viewers, classifiers had a more difficult decision ahead of them. India's Central Board of Film Classification generally follows a very cautious brief to send films with sexual content straight to the A (18+) category. The BBFC, on the other hand, deals far more robustly with t he issue of sex, facing as it does a wide and ever-changing range of tastes and sensibilities in this area nationally. There is no separate standard for Bollywood films, despite their fairly specific audience, based on the belief that the Human Rights Act requires the Board to treat all films and audiences equally and fairly. These national standards, condensed into published guidelines, provide Examiners with a generally safe framework within which different genres and issues can be made to fit with greater or lesser degrees of ease. But, when sex and sex references are the defining issue in a Bollywood film, given the continuing tendency of South Asian film-makers to use innuendo and suggestiveness rather than explicit material, the BBFC certificate is often very far down the line from the film’s Indian A certificate, quite often occupying the realm of the 'junior' categories, U and PG. This can sometimes pose a dilemma for Examiners.

Most of the British public indicated in the Board’s most recent public consultation exercise - conducted in 2004 - that a couple kissing on screen did not pose an issue requiring the cautionary category, and thus the U Guidelines for sex state: ‘Mild sexual behaviour (eg. kissing) and mild references only (eg. to ‘making love’). At PG, the guidelines state: ‘Sexual activity may be implied, but should be discreet and infrequent. Mild sex references and innuendo are allowed’. And, at 12A: ‘Sexual activity may be implied. Sex references may reflect what is likely to be familiar to most adolescents but should not go beyond what is acceptable to them’.

Last year the Board also carried out a research project to specifically explore South Asian audience expectations (‘Bollywood Batein’), putting specific classification issues to Bollywood audiences along with clips from relevant films. The general response seemed to indicate that South Asians were far more tolerant of sex scenes in western films but viewed similar scenes in Asian films as requiring a higher category. Some of this was down to genre expectations although a few respondents explained their particular dislike for seeing sex sequences in Hindi films as being a depiction of falling standards or of ‘unacceptable behavior in Asian society’. Comments varied from: “In our Asian culture, we are brought up to respect our elders. Seeing such scenes in their presence is a sign of disrespect and thus not done in our culture. This does not apply to English culture, they are very open about such scenes with children” (Bangladeshi male aged 25-44, London); and “My wife would say – if you want to watch that then why don’t you get an English film? Why do you have to see it in an Indian film?” (Pakistani male aged 25-44, Birmingham); and “If it’s an English film, children know it’s an English film … they are aware this is not our culture but this is English culture” (Indian female 45-65, Leicester).

Of even more concern was the potential embarrassment factor. A common response was, “If there was a sex scene, I would feel uncomfortable watching with my parents but I wouldn’t be fussed watching with my partner” (Indian females aged 25-44, Birmingham). Having seen a clip from the 12-rated Satta, one respondent remarked “If I decided to have a night of it with children of 8 and 12 in a family grouping, and I took the film home because I thought it was going to be all right because it’s a 12 and that came up, I’d be furious” (Asian female aged 18-24 Birmingham). Another respondent said, “My cousin runs this video shop. I have been trying for three weeks to get the film Jism. He knows that this film would offend my family and is so scared to be told off by them that he refuses to give me the film. Every time I ask for Jism, he says it’s out!” (Pakistani male, married, aged 18-24 Birmingham).

Faced with this seeming dichotomy of sensibilities between mainstream tastes for sex and sex references in films and those of the more traditional Bollywood audiences, the BBFC makes it a point to include at least one Examiner with a thorough understanding of South Asian languages and culture on every team classifying Bollywood releases. This achieves not just effective translation and interpretation but also helps to assess the receptivity of the audiences the film is intended for. Additionally, all Examiners are trained in the history and issues specific to South Asian cinema in the training they receive from the Board.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the BBFC uses the Consumer Advice (now known as BBFCinsight) it draws up for every film and video release to especially flag up those issues that would be of particular interest to the receiving audience. This is carried in a grid system on video packaging and film distributors have agreed to carry concise Consumer Advice on their posters too. As Bollywood posters are often printed well in advance of the film being classified in the UK, South Asian film distributors are faced with a unique problem in this matter too. However, a few helpful exhibitors, (such as Cineworld UK), have taken to publishing the Board’s Consumer Advice alongside the classification and other information available on their websites and the Board’s own main website aims to have this information out in the public realm as soon as possible too

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