Slate's Explainer: Bollywood's Censorship Rules

Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains how the government of India censors films made and shown in the subcontinent, and what you still can't show in an Indian movie. Every year, the Bollywood movie factory cranks out more films than any other nation — even Hollywood — but there's no french kissing, no nudity and definitely no sex. Now the censorship board has banned on-screen smoking, too.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Indian filmmakers also face certain hurdles, at least when it comes to what they can show on the silver screen. Last week, the Indian government announced that as of August 1st, smoking will no longer be allowed in Indian films. New movies must be entirely smoke-free, and older films can only be presented with health warnings. Well, that raised a question for our partners at the online magazine Slate: What else can't you show in Bollywood, the world's most prolific film industry? Here with an Explainer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

The rules are vague and applied inconsistently, but in most Indian films, you won't see French kissing, nudity of any kind or excessive drug use. Modest kisses do turn up from time to time. Touchy political subjects like religious or ethnic violence are off limits, especially in films critical of the ruling party.

Official censorship comes from the government's Central Board of Film Certification. The board, which includes both artists and politicians, screens every movie made in India and assigns it a rating similar to the ratings American films get from this country's non-governmental ratings board. But the Indian board can also refuse a film outright for public exhibition. It often uses its power to order offensive scenes cut out. Producers can appeal, but early rulings tend to be definitive.

Indian cinema was somewhat more permissive before independence from Britain in 1947. Though there is a rule against obscenity in the Indian Constitution, specific film restrictions originated in the 1950s. An Indian high court ruling in 1970 affirmed the role of the government as a censor of the film industry, but insisted that decisions on content be made in context. Said the court, quote, "It is not elements of rape, leprosy or sexual immorality which should attract the censor's scissors, but how the theme is handled by the producer."

The industry also provides self-censorship. For example, some actors are uncomfortable with filming on-screen kisses. But if they're smokers, they will now have to put out their cigarettes before the cameras start rolling.

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BRAND: That Explainer from Andy Bowers. He's a senior editor at the online magazine Slate. And that Explainer was researched by Daniel Engber.

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BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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