Having been an employee of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) for over seven years, I may never be able to separate my appreciation of film from a sense of its classification. Months after having left that job, I continue to sit in the dark of a theatre, counting f-words and assessing the imitability of knife-play and head-butts rather than giving myself up to the pleasures offered by the film. Will I at some point be able to revert to being a regular popcorn punter at the cinema? Perhaps not.
When my historical novel Rani was banned by the Uttar Pradesh government, my sense of outrage was at odds with the job I did day in and day out at the Board. Rani had caused annoyance, real and contrived, for its fictionalised portrayal of Rani Lakshmibai as a pacifist who was drawn into a warm and trusting relationship with her British political advisor. Regardless of how much of the story was true, protestors chose to ignore the fact that it is the place of historical fiction to offer alternative stories to the one that, rightly or wrongly, has remained the accepted version.
But it is the same attitude that this constituency takes towards films that deal with historical material, recent examples being Jodhaa Akbar in India and Hollywood’s 300, both of which caused similar outrage for their directors’ audacity in re-telling well-worn historical myths or ‘playing with history', as though history were something in which interpretation has not already played a huge part.
But that was, at least partly, what my job entailed: to examine the creative efforts of others to assess their propensity to offend or harm. The classification system was more than adequate to address the concerns of most, any work with powers to offend merely being bumped up the classification scale to the giddy heights offered by the highest categories (in Britain, ‘15’, ‘18’ and ‘R18’ for the restricted porn category). However, occasionally, a work would come along that caused classification to slip further up the scale into the sensitive area of censorship, mostly in cases where material was thought likely to cause ‘harm to the viewer or harm to society through the actions of the viewer’. The line, quoted from the Britain’s Video Recordings Act 1984, was one that, in my seven years at the Board, came to be imprinted on my brain.
In 2001, however, I walked into my interview at the Board’s Soho Square offices, wondering whether to make plain my anti-censorship views. ‘I’m liberal bordering on libertarian,’ I had told myself in the mirror while getting ready earlier that morning, deciding only while on the tube to Soho that it would be wise not to say anything so sweeping and pompous if I wanted the job.
The Board’s setting itself felt like a mismatch to its stuffy reputation. Soho continues to be the closest one can get to a red light district in London, dotted with sex shops and featuring the occasional woman standing in a dingy doorway wearing fishnet stockings and cheap perfume. But this has been the Board’s location for almost a hundred years, ever since the idea of some form of regulation was conceived by a late Victorian government panicking about the powerful new medium. Later, Britain’s nascent film industry decided to encourage the setting up of a body that would bring uniformity to the classification of films which would otherwise have been a messy and time-consuming business carried out by local authorities. Hence the birth of the Board.
Unlike in India, film classifiers’ posts are not grace-and-favour government appointments. The job is advertised and candidates are drawn from normal walks of life, generally needing some experience of working with children and great quantities of common sense, although languages and an understanding of new technologies are usually considered an advantage.
Regularly conducted public consultation exercises keep the Board in touch with the sensibilities of the British public, and printed guidelines are drawn up and revised every five years. Classification decisions are made available for public consumption and complaints and comments made by people are responded to by examiners who classified the work. And yet, for all those claims to modernity, one may sensibly query if there is any relevance to a censorship body in the 21st century when the internet remains a relatively untrammelled, free-floating entity, difficult to control or regulate.
Most viewers’ instinctive reaction would be an emphatic ‘no’. But what is a regulatory body to do when, for instance, a film with immense appeal to young people (Rules of Attraction) contains a scene showing a young woman slowly undressing before sitting in a bathtub, taking off her rings and slitting her wrist vertically with a razor blade in an extreme close-up shot. A suicide prevention specialist said few know of how lethal vertical cuts on wrists can be, leading to a speedy and certain death. The scene in the film, played to the beguiling soundtrack of Nilsen’s ‘Can’t live, if living is without you’ . . ., presented a glamourised suicide scene and showed what was, in the Board’s parlance, ‘an imitable harmful technique’.
An example emerged recently in a low-budget American work called Terrorists, Killers and Other Wackos: a collection of clips collected from the floors of editing rooms, cobbled together and set to a jaunty soundtrack. Nothing was sacrosanct: real deaths, suicides, executions, horrific injuries, a close-up of a man having his hand sliced off at the wrist. All served up without any documentary or other context and with the express intent to entertain. It made for jaw-dropping, eye-watering viewing, and the DVD would almost certainly have found a ready market, probably among feckless young men at drink-driven parties. It was also acknowledged that the work was very unlikely to lead to anyone rushing out to copy or imitate the gory actions on view. However, there was an extremely disturbing quality to such unashamedly exploitative material that made it impossible to release without some amount of soul-searching and debate. However, despite my own revulsion at the film, I continued to find it tough to accept that the organisation I worked for had a remit that included protecting the moral fabric of the nation. Who was I to tell people what they could and couldn't watch, all the while being relatively undisturbed myself by watching the same material? Most BBFC cuts are made in the porn category (sensibly, an entirely legal product in the UK, although hardcore material can only be sold in licenced sex shops). The Obscene Publications Act 1959, brought in to unsuccessfully proscribe D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, is also still much in use, notably in the area of porn. It is, thankfully, a law that is almost never used to proscribe printed material any more, but the moving image is apparently still fair game.
Are people really likely to be depraved and corrupted merely by watching porn performers do odd things to each other on screen? All but the very prudish would probably—at least, secretly— think not. But such acts as the dripping of hot wax on certain body parts have remained on the Department of Public Prosecution’s list of obscene material for a long time and there will be little appetite in government to take on what could turn into a rather (forgive the pun) sticky issue.
And so the BBFC soldiers on into the 21st century, doing what it does with sincerity and good intent. It’s not the only body like it. I have visited the lumbering and rather Orwellian I&B Ministry in India too and, despite initial misgivings, found myself impressed by a complex system that takes on board not just different regional languages and film industries but a range of cultural sensibilities too. It all seems like an inordinately huge fuss and bother for what is, largely, a simple mode of entertainment enjoyed innocently by millions the world over. Standing outside any multiplex in the world as a film finishes, one would be hard put to imagine anyone in the happy crowds drifting past come to some sort of dire harm as a result of the film they’ve just seen. But, as a brief part of that strange regulatory machine which does precisely that, I did eventually manage to convince myself of the necessity for some form of limited and judicious censorship as far as films are concerned. It’s down to the medium itself: one so powerful and moving and inclusive that it transcends all other forms of entertainment, becoming something dangerously akin to reality, to life itself.
Jaishree Misra is a Delhi-based author and was a member of the British Film Certification Board. This is an edited extract from the forthcoming book Popcorn Essayists: What Movies Do to Writers (Tranquebar) edited by Jai Arjun Singh