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Indian films belittle women, says Sharmila

entertainment Updated: Jul 16, 2007 17:37 IST
Jonathan Allen
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As chief film censor, there are films Sharmila Tagore enjoys to watch but will not allow the public to see.

She describes the Mike Nichols film Closer, which starred Julia Roberts and Jude Law, as beautiful, brilliant and well-performed.

But the producers would not agree to cut some sexually explicit dialogue, and so the film did not get its certificate for release in India.

She said she feared that the wordy sex talk of the film's neurotic Londoners, once hastily dubbed into Hindi, might not be well-received by Indian audiences -- especially those outside the big metropolises, who are typically more conservative, less educated and, she says, less "media-literate".

"India is a country of paradox. It lives in many centuries," she told Reuters in a weekend interview in her New Delhi home.

"We cannot give a certificate only for the city of Bombay or the city of Calcutta. We have to give an all-India certificate.

"Films can corrupt," she said, particularly when it comes to how men view women. "At the same time we have to know the pulse of the people. We don't want to be too restrictive."

Street censorship

Tagore was in a London boutique in 2004 when a government official called her mobile phone to ask her about becoming the chairwoman of the Central Board of Film Certification.

She had lived a glamorous life: her acting career was launched by acclaimed Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, she married Mansur Ali Khan, an aristocrat and former Indian cricket captain, and their son Saif Ali Khan is one of Bollywood's biggest stars.

But she had never done anything administrative, she says, and wondered what it might be like.

Her team sits through about 1,000 feature-length films each year. They order cuts to be made in roughly two out of every three films, and deny a distribution certificate to about a dozen films each year, often for inciting violence against minorities.

She regrets that at the back of everyone's minds are India's small band of conservative zealots who react noisily, often for political gain, whenever they believe Indian values are threatened, organising mobs that break and burn objects in front of television cameras and beat people up.

The fear of what Tagore calls street censorship has forced the film board to be more strict than it might otherwise be.

"In India everybody is in the mood to get offended right now," she said.

She reckons things have become worse since she was the target of angry conservatives in the 1960s when she appeared on a film magazine cover wearing only a bikini -- an unprecedented level of public skimpiness for an Indian woman at the time.

Other taboos have faded since 1971, when Tagore starred in the film Amar Prem as a prostitute who appeared to give her visiting clients nothing steamier than a plate of hot samosas.

Bikinis are now more than acceptable, and some Bollywood stars have even started kissing and performing sex scenes onscreen in recent years. Tagore is not impressed.

"I've seen actors kissing and they're still not very comfortable with it," she said.

"They're trying to be progressive. But India is very superficially modern," she said. "In these films the dresses are modern, the dancing is modern, the hairstyles are modern, but when it comes to thinking, then they're very conservative."

Particularly so, she says, when it comes to women, who are handed only "decorative" roles.

"A female audience will not be threatened by a man who can drive better or tell a joke better or dance better. But a male audience will get threatened by a woman if she plays the stronger part. The Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Katharine Hepburn kind of roles will never happen in India, or at least haven't happened yet."