by Brian Bergen-Aurand
From the start, Monika Mehta’s Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema (University of Texas Press, 2011) takes a refreshing tack in addressing the relation among cinema, censorship, artistry, and state power. It is one of my favorite recent books on these topics.
Mehta begins her research by asking after three issues: How has censorship been practiced? How have gender and heterosexuality intertwined with discourses of censorship, tradition, and cinema? and What have been the productive effects of such intertwining? Rather than following the simplistic formula of seeing censorship as something imposed upon a formerly authentic and true text, Mehta charts the complex relations among power, practice, and sexuality in producing censorship. She takes a dynamic view of censorship, investigating how central concepts of film studies–such as stardom, spectacle, genre, sound, and point-of-view–are engaged and reconfigured within the compass of state, institutional, studio, and artistic censorship. She then connects these reconfigurations to questions of technology, sites of reception, national borders and agendas, and alternative economics–such as piracy–produce “normative film spectatorship” and, thus, normative film censorship.
In other words, Mehta traces acts of censorship throughout the processes of film production, distribution, exhibition, and reception that work not simply to control or repress the cinema but also to make the very cinema p0ssible. Censorship is mobilized to provoke us to imagine a nation–what national censorship boards allow or disallow define and secure cultural and political borders. However, censorship is also mobilized to provoke us to imagine a cinema–what filmmakers compose and what spectators receive also define and secure cultural and political borders. There is no national imagination without censorship; there is no cinematic imagination without censorship. In both cases, censorship is an act of exclusion and inclusion, prohibitive and productive, containment and expansion.
Most interestingly, since, as she explains, “censorship becomes a practice that constitutes the state and its relation with its citizens” and censorship becomes a practice that constitutes the cinema and its relation with its spectators, censorship is inciteful in the sense that it leads to debates over sexual and violent acts (most often) and can work to produce the desires associated with such sexual and violent acts. The very acts of classifying and dividing certain images, scenes, or acts as obscene highlights them and gives them focus outside the texts where they originate. What may be only a comment, a gesture, or a movement within a narrative text, suddenly becomes an act on its own which must be named, described, and explicated. Thus, the very act of censoring it articulates it.
In the end, Mehta claims her intentions in the book are twofold:
first, to foreground routine, arbitrary, unstitched, and intentional practices in the process of censorship; second, to disturb a disciplinary mode of constructing and presenting an argument. The techniques of storytelling and description enable me to gesture toward uncanny resemblances among censorship, scholarship, and film production. In drawing attention to a set of formal and formulaic actions shared by this trio, I show that power is neither distant nor extraordinary.
Power–especially censorial power–is productive and provocative, neither distant not extraordinary, indeed.