Cinema is transformative—it inspires, evokes, and agitates beyond its entertainment value. For this reason, cinema becomes vulnerable at the hands of regimes wishing to control ideas being consumed by the public.
Only a few countries, mostly those in the Global South such as India, Iran, China, and Malaysia, still have a censor board. Censorship in the rest of the world is limited to child pornography—other than that, films are not censored but certified with preview grades and are examined by film critics for moral and philosophical deviations.
The Bangladesh Film Censor Board, guided by colonial laws, decide which images can be consumed by the public. But what kind of images does the Censor Board find threatening and how does it affect the quality of films being produced? To understand the role of the Censor Board in Bangladesh's cultural landscape, Star Weekend spoke to several filmmakers, and Board employees.
The colonial history of the censor board
Tracing the Censor Board's history reveals that the body was actually established to control cultural production that inspired anti-colonial sentiments amongst the masses. In India, cinema appeared when the nationalist movement was gaining momentum. Creative members of the anti-colonial struggle capitalised on the popularity of cinema to mobilise the public towards their cause. The Cinematograph Act, 1918 was then set up by the British-Indian government “to prevent the exhibition of objectionable films.” The first film objected to by the British-Indian censor board was Bhakta Vidur in 1921, for loosely hinting at the political atmosphere in then colonial India and dressing the hero of the film in “Gandhi cap”. The 1928 Indian Cinematograph Committee cited that “[the film] is likely to excite dissatisfaction against government and incite people to non-co-operation.”
The 1918 Act was later used as the basis of creating East Bengal Board of Film Censors in 1952, which went on to regulate films such as Zahir Raihan's Jibon Theke Neya (which was later released).
The Pakistan government introduced Censorship of Films Act, 1963 with additional clauses and formed Central Board of Film Censors with branches in Dhaka and Lahore. Both Acts from the British-ruled colonial era and Pakistan-ruled era are still in effect and form the foundational documents that guide Bangladesh Film Censor Board.
Censorship and state sponsored national identities
During the Indo-Pak war of 1965, Ayub Khan capitalised on nationalist sentiment to ban Indian Hindi-language and Indian Bengali-language films using Censorship of Films Act, 1963. The idea was to protect Pakistan's local film industry.
After Bangladesh's independence, the same clause from 1963 Act was used to ban both Indian and Pakistani films to resist the dominating effect of Hindi-language and Urdu-language films. While these measures were needed to protect the local industry, the push for a Bengali-language centric national cinema actively rendered non-Bengali speakers of the country, such as the indigenous community, invisible.
There is no explicit clause that discourages other languages in censorship laws, but there is no direct or indirect mention of inclusiveness of other languages either.
The marginalisation of indigenous voices was felt explicitly when, in 2015, the Bangladesh Censor Board rejected certification of the first Chakma-language film, Mor Thengari (My Bicycle) directed by Aung Rakhine, who is also the executive producer of Bengal Creations.
Director Aung believes, “Language must be a surface-level reason. I don't see why Bengali-speaking audience would not be able to understand the visual language of my film.”
Film producer and Censor Board member, Nasiruddin Dilu agrees, “If indigenous-language film is submitted, then we will surely review them.” But when asked about Mor Thengari, Dilu said, “I am unaware of any such films. No indigenous language films have been submitted to the Censor Board yet.”
Mor Thengari is set in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and intimately explores the language, culture, and politics of the Chakma community. Aung says that he “was notified by the Censor Board that they received a long letter from the Ministry of Information raising several issues of the film.” He was then requested to cut almost ten scenes from the film because of which he decided to withdraw the film from the Censor Board.
Another instance, where the Ministry of Home Affairs got involved, is during Tanvir Mokammel's 2005 documentary Karnaphuli'r Kanna (Teardrops of Karnaphuli) which also depicts indigenous communities of CHT. Mokammel says, “That was a time when the Bangladesh Army was engaged in military operations in the CHT. The film, sympathetic to the cause of hill people, was banned.”
In both cases, clauses from the 1963 Act meant to support the local film industry was used to deter diversity within the industry, especially discouraging voices from minority sections of the public.
Change of government, change of morality
The decisions of the Censor Board, is heavily influenced by its fifteen-member board's moral and political values. The board, chaired by secretary of Ministry of Information, consists of government representatives from different ministries, including Prime Minister's press secretary. Few government-nominated commercial film-related people are also members, such as Nasiruddin Dilu and Mushfiqur Rahman Gulzhar. These are the individuals who decide what is appropriate for the country to absorb.
In 1991, Tanvir Mokammel's documentary Smrity '71 (Remembrance of '71) was objected to by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-era Censor Board. Mokammel elaborates on the matter: “The whole idea of Smrity '71 was an anathema to the ideological stance of BNP-Jamaat coalition government. The film dealt with the gruesome murder of Bengali intellectuals by Al-Badr and other Pakistani forces during the 1971 war. As a theme, as everyone understands, this was not for the liking of the then government as it was Jamaat-e-Islam party itself which had formed the death squad Al-Badr.”
In the same electoral term, in 1995, Tareque Masud's Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom) was objected to for fear of arousing Awami League-leaning support. Another of Tanvir Mokammel's film, Nadir Naam Madhumati, was also banned by the Censor Board in 1994 on account of being “anti-nationalist” (Mokammel uses the term “pro-liberation”). Mokammel appealed this ban to the Supreme Court, and then to the High Court. However, both films were released only when the ruling party changed, and Awami League was voted into power.
Fast forward to 2009, Enamul Karim Nirjhar's political satire Nomuna was denied censorship clearance due to its politically-sensitive content. The film metaphorically explores current political landscape at the level of a small village community—an approach similar to Zahir Raihan's Jibon Theke Neya. Censor Board film inspector, Obaidul Kabir Mollah, said about the film, “the director caricatured political leaders, so we asked him to withdraw the film after we rejected certification.”
In 2011, Gazi Mazharul Anwar's Rhidoy Bhanga Dhew was also banned for dressing the antagonist in a “Mujib coat.” Then vice-chairman of Bangladesh Film Censor Board, Surat Kumar Sarker, told AFP that Rhidoy Bhanga Dhew “goes against political philosophy of the country.”
Primarily what these incidents portray is a varied understanding of how films can be considered inappropriate at any given time. When pressed about objectivity of censorship laws, Secretary of Bangladesh Film Censor Board, Mohammad Ali Sarker said, “We can't say anything specific regarding this, it really depends on the time at which any given film was rejected certification and how the then-members of the Board felt about political elements of the film.”
Filmmaker Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, whose films have had their fair share of Censor Board drama, adds to this dilemma, “Our Censorship Act is not very friendly and clear and has sections that can allow for future grilling of filmmakers in case it goes against whoever is in government at that period of time.”
Censorship's effect on alt-cinema
Alternative cinema is the realm of film that is usually produced under non-traditional film structures. Often, they do not follow big studio's profit-making motto, making it a breeding ground for new-age thinking. One of the directors of this alternative movement, Farooki, told Star Weekend that “traditionally, independent or socially relevant films suffer the most at the hands of the Censor Board.”
In several instances, alternative cinema has faced certification rejection from Censor Board for clauses that were exempted for commercial grade films. Consider the period of 1972-1996 where images of rape and assault on women were portrayed through a lens of enjoyment and glorification, almost bordering on soft-porn, in mainstream Bengali cinema which violated The Code for Censorship of Films, 1985.
Meanwhile, a scene from Farooki's 2009 film Third Person Singular Number where a drunkard harasses and spits at the female protagonist when she refuses to respond to his cat-calls was cut by the Censor Board claiming that it degrades women. The key here is the gaze by which the images are portrayed. While titillating scenes of assault in commercial films are given a pass, realist and contextualised depictions of assault is reason for objection in non-commercial films.
Film inspector Mollah, when asked about this double-standard, says, “Those were during BNP's rule. We are stricter now, we don't certify these images anymore, even in commercial films.” Yet, a quick scan of movie posters running in local theatres prove that objectified, cheap aesthetics are still rampant on screens and hearts of male viewers.
Censor Board member Dilu says, “We definitely don't allow obscenity but we are more liberal with women's image now. If we don't allow these then nobody will come to our theatres. For film culture to survive, our films must be able to generate revenues and that only happens if we excuse these images.”
Dilu's statement exposes Censor Board's focus on the “industry” part of film industry rather than its cultural function in society. This approach lacks the nuance for judging non-commercial films aiming beyond commercial success. Filmmaker Tanvir Mokammel believes that, “a board which censors run-of-the-mill commercial films may not be competent enough to judge the artistic and social contents of art films.”
Furthermore, many non-commercial films are independently produced or crowd-funded, such as Aung Rakhine's Mor Thengari. Their survival and distribution often depend on their performance in international film festivals. However, due to the Censor Board regularly delaying the bureaucratic process of certification, many films cannot avail the opportunity to participate in such events. “They [Censor Board] raised several issues regarding paperwork and delayed the certification process,” says Aung, whose application took about three months for review, “Each film has a time window for its success and the delay was hampering my festival window.”
Censorship's existential crisis
The existence of censorship was brought into question by legendary filmmaker Alamgir Kabir in his 1981 essay “Sangskriti Chai”:
“Bangladesh is now independent. Cultural censorship for such a conscious nation, born out of a bloody (and glorious) freedom war, is insulting and unnecessary. Film censor rules, like other censor systems, have been written and imposed for the protection of British colonialism. The current form of the Censor Board must be discarded soon. [translated by author]”
Kabir, too, supported the protectionist measures against Urdu and Hindi films. Yet, he was careful not to encourage policing of cinema.
The sentiment that Kabir exhibits in his essay is still resonant with filmmakers that followed after him. Tanvir Mokammel, winner of nine National Film Awards, expands on Kabir's opinion: “I believe our people are mature enough to judge between good, bad, and evil. If they can elect a Prime Minister for the country, they should have the right to choose for themselves which films to watch, which ones to not. As an artist, I am dead against any censor in any form of art.”
Mokammel, along with Farooki, believes that the Censor Board should be reformed to a grading certification board. “If it really has to exist then its role should be not to ban films, but merely to provide gradings to films such as parental guidance, for children, for adult, etc. In a modern democratic society, people have the right to watch everything. We don't need a bunch of moral police,” says Mokammel.
Indeed, in a digital era where content is ever so freely flowing online, the capacity of censorship is increasingly limited. The idea of a moral police assumes that the public is not intelligent enough to think for themselves, much like the British thought of Indians. Or perhaps the opposite—maybe ruling groups are too threatened by the intelligible power of cinematic images. Whatever it may be, censorship, in actuality, simply hinders the growth of national cinema.
Commercial Bengali films with knock-off plots and cheap item songs still remain popular amongst a majority of the population and the reason for this is not a matter of taste or intelligence. Bangladeshi mass public is simply deprived of engaging and thought-provoking cinema. The structure of film production, regulated by authority bodies such as the Censor Board, discourages enthusiastic filmmakers with new-age thinking. For cinema to serve its true purpose and become a breeding ground for revolutionary ideas, it must first separate itself from its colonial roots of control and propaganda.