CensoriumThe publication of Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity by William Mazzarella, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, is timely given the recent national election results of May 2014 in India which brought the infamous media manipulator, Narendra Modi to power as the country’s next Prime Minister, with his saffron image machine buttressed by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates. Modi, the former unchallenged leader of a big-business-friendly state (which his American PR firm, Apco, successfully rebranded as “Vibrant Gujarat”), now projects himself as the face of a democratic, economically vigorous and pro-West New India. (1) Arriving in this nervous historical moment, Censorium attempts to untangle the convoluted nexus of mass publicity and state censorship in India – an affective nodal point that for over a decade Mazzarella has been consistently engaged with to varying degrees, including in his first book, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India, as co-editor of Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction, and in numerous essays. (2) The book’s cover photograph, taken by the author, intimates what possibly lies within: through a sheer plastic shower curtain is perceived the indistinct outline of a red flower (perhaps a passionate rose or a modest geranium) and its green leaves; the image beckons the reader to draw back the curtain to more tangibly discern what comprises the steamy invitation of the cerise-coloured blossom, a symbol of the image-object deemed necessary to censor. However, the text moves beyond the image-object of film censorship into a larger field of play, as Mazzarella states in the introduction:

[…] at one level, film censorship is certainly about which image-objects can or cannot be allowed to circulate, at another level it keeps returning to the problem of the cinema as a medium that, whether in a register of promise or panic, makes palpable potentials that exceed any enumeration of contents. (p. 3)

Example of an Indian Film Censor Board certificate

Example of an Indian Film Censor Board certificate

At the same time, the author underscores that his work is neither a history of Indian film censorship nor a manuscript of film studies.He envisions his thinking as “a contribution to the political anthropology of mass publicity” and poses several key questions that he entertains throughout the book:

What is the place of affective intensities in modern mass-mediated democracies? What is the importance of the fact that we are called upon to belong at once to concrete crowds and to abstract publics? And what happens to political authority when it can no longer reside in the physical body of a singular sovereign and has to find its feet in the intimately anonymous space of mass publicity? (p. 4)

Mazzarella pointedly qualifies his use of “mass” as “not out of some nostalgia for a vanished, more homogenous era but because it preserves the sense of generality that I believe still characterises the modern notion of publics.” (pp. 223-224, n. 5)

So what does the author mean by “the open edge of mass publicity” and how does he go about illustrating this would-be condition of public being that so inspires fear and fascination in the colonial and post-colonial state censors during the 20th century in India? As defined by Mazzarella, “the open edge of mass publicity” is “the element of anonymity that characterises any public communication in the age of mass publics.” (p. 37) And the struggle between “the open edge of mass publicity” and state and societal sponsored “bounded symbolic orders” is a “structural feature of mass publics” in not only colonial and postcolonial India, but also “in mass-meditated societies everywhere.” (pp. 30 and 38) Furthermore, as a mass medium, the significance of the cinematic experience in “the endlessly reiterated assertion of the cinema’s ‘immense power’ is linked to this open edge, this intimate anonymity, this corporeal and yet disembodied address.” (p. 48) And to notate the particular import of Indian cinema in this regard, he writes:

These perceived characteristics of the cinema in India – its reach, its cultural influence, and its affective resonance – help to explain why it has been hedged around with such an elaborate censorship apparatus and why its regulation continues to generate such impassioned debate. (pp. 11-12)

Madhuri Dixit in Choli ke peeche hai? (“What’s beneath the blouse?”) song and dance number from Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak (1993)

Madhuri Dixit in Choli ke peeche hai? (“What’s beneath the blouse?”) song and dance number from Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak (1993)

In Censorium, Mazzarella delineates two historical periods of film censorship focus in India – the British “colonial moral panic” of the interwar 1920s-1930s and India’s postcolonial “cultural emergency” of the globalizing and liberalizing 1990s-2000s. These two eras are thematically addressed from diverse vantage points within the various institutions that construct the discourse of censorship in 20th century India. In the first chapter, titled “Performative Dispensations: The Elementary Forms of Mass Publicity,” Mazzarella establishes a somewhat playful strategy – “Outline for a Short Film in Four Scenes” – to present four quasi-fictive, semi-historical tableaux (from India’s mythological “first play” to an imaginary theatrical event about the volatile environment surrounding Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire [1996]), in order to forefront the genealogy of the narrative threads applicable to his arguments about the anonymity of public communication in the age of mass publicity. (3)

Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996)

Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996)

Throughout the text, the author spotlights the “regulatory anxieties” engendered by the potential heady mix of cinema and mass publics through an examination of key written sources and their contexts, like the British Obscene Publications Act of 1857, the Indian Penal Code of 1860, the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1918, the Indian Cinematograph Committee (ICC) Report of 1928, and the Report of the Enquiry Committee on Film Censorship (also known as the Khosla Report) of 1969. He addresses a series of crucial Hindi-Urdu feature films, including Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975), Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak (1993),Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995), Deepa Mehta’s Fire, Anurag Kashyap’s Paanch (2000), Sunhil Sippy’s Snip! (2001), and to a lesser extent the documentaries of Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma, all of which had a multitude of problems with the Indian Film Censor Board and/or had induced “extraconstitutional censorship”, as evidenced by Shiv Sena (“Army of Shiva”) founder Bal Thackeray’s vocal objections to “unflattering” scenes suggesting connections between himself and the 1992-93 Bombay riots in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay.

Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995)

Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995)

The “immanent” stance of the author’s methodological practice further incorporates interviews with a collection of informants, including an assortment of Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) or Indian Film Censor Board members (cf. p. 80 for documentarian Rakesh Sharma’s scathing assessment of a “typical” CBFC Advisory Panel), former CBFC chairpersons Vijay Anand and Anupam Kher, Indian film directors, producers, playwrights, actors, actresses, advertisers, journalists, and politicians.

Mazzarella’s rich theoretical engagements in Censorium are too numerous to adequately address here, but his optimistic aim is to engender the potential of a conversation “across the lamentable divide between Francophone-vitalist discussions of affect and Germanic-dialectical explorations of aesthetics”; furthermore, being labelled an “ostensibly oxymoronic […] dialectical vitalist” is not entirely objectionable to him (cf. pp. 26 and 229, n. 43). Of note is his nuancing of Jurgen Habermas’ conceptualizations of the public sphere (Mazzarella moves toward a “mutual imbrication” of Habermas’ “commercial” and “reasoned” public spheres), of Emile Durkheim’s notion of mana or “collective energy”, of Roland Barthes’ notion of the punctum, and of Alexander Kluge’s configuration of the everydayness of “collective experience”, and his fruitful application of such concepts to mass-mediated societies. (cf. pp. 40, 211-213 and 224, n. 5). At the end of the text, the author pointedly arrives at the wider spectrum of his argument: 

In other words, restricted obscenity serves the interests of the censors’ performative dispensation because it creates the appearance that the emergent potentials of mass-mediated image objects can in fact be effectively and centrally managed and moralized. Just as the extimacy of the pissing man [i.e., the common man, the male spectator] occasionally sends a squirm down the spine of bourgeois moralism, so generalized obscenity is a name for the intimation that unknowable affective tendencies operate at the very heart of the most normative culture orders. (p. 216)

“Revenge was her answer,” film poster in Hindi for Bandit Queen by Shekhar Kapur (1994) 

“Revenge was her answer,” film poster in Hindi for Bandit Queen by Shekhar Kapur (1994)

Thus, in Censorium, Mazzarella elucidates the dynamic affective intersections of censorial discourse and the sensorial language of the cinematic text and extra-cinematic context. His writing exposes the self-perpetuating ideological loop of film censorship in India and how it is inextricably imbricated with the (il)logic of the state in its ineffectual attempt to contain the presumed haptically unstable, sensuously salacious masses, perennially in danger of losing themselves in the cinematic image. Illuminating a core proposition of the book, he critically puts forth, “Ultimately, it is the question of how mass-mediated life together becomes possible and livable, how the emergent enthusiasms of a mass society are or are not shaped into cultural and ideological projects.” (p. 220)

Controversial scene from Bandit Queen by Shekhar Kapur (1994)

Controversial scene from Bandit Queen by Shekhar Kapur (1994)

Moving beyond the fertile elaborations of this text, essential aural cinematic registers and new digital media vistas would perhaps benefit from the application of the author’s theoretical interrogations. The book itself might have been further energized with photographs and illustrations to optically focus the reader, particularly he/she who is unfamiliar with Indian cinema and visual culture. Theoretically challenging, yet comprehensible, and ethnographically balanced, Censorium potentially appeals to academic and lay audiences alike. To conclude, the future of the “unruly potentials of mass publicity” looks as titillating, vexing, and promising as ever.

William Mazzarella, Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013). 

Endnotes

1. Pankaj Mishra, “The Gujarat Massacre: New India’s Blood Rite,” The Guardian, 14 March 2012 (accessed June 19, 2014).

2. For a complete listing of Mazzarella’s work, see his homepage on the University of Chicago, Department of Anthropology’s website (accessed June 19, 2014)

3. Mazzarella designates a “performative dispensation” as a “claim to authoritative cultural order” which in the age of mass publicity “can no longer be imagined as only local, and the nascent sovereignty of the spectator-citizens, in all its intimate anonymity, rubs up against the vestiges of the kind of singularized authority embodied in an auratic emperor” (p. 42). See also: “A Torn Performative Dispensation: The Affective Politics of British World War II Propaganda in India and the Problem of Legitimation in an Age of Mass Publics,” South Asian History and Culture 1(1), 2010: 1-24.

About The Author

Dr. Erin O’Donnell is Assistant Professor of Asian History at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania in the U.S. She is currently working on a monograph about the films and writings of the Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976).