This was originally posted on Firstpost.com.
The first time Khushi sees Vishy in Action Jackson, he’s in a changing room, trying on underwear. Khushi’s gaze is trained upon his genitalia. When Khushi gets a promotion right after this brief encounter with Vishy, she’s convinced that it was the sight of Vishy’s man bits that changed her luck. And so, when there’s talk of an arranged marriage with an NRI gent, Khushi decides the best way to ensure this alliance works out is not to get to know the prospective groom and his family, but to see Vishy without his pants again. So Khushi stalks Vishy, makes friends with him and goes so far as to try drugging him in order to get him out of his underwear.
Now let’s take a look at Marina, sister of an Indian don in Bangkok. When she’s kidnapped by her brother’s enemies, she’s molested by them. They tear her shirt open and are about to rape her when Jai walks in. He loses his shirt and starts walking towards her while brandishing a ninja blade and killing the molesters. Marina sits up, leans forward. She doesn’t button her shirt. She just stares at him and starts breathing hard, indicating to the audience that she’s turned on by Jai. Later, the camera runs along her naked back, right down to the top of her buttocks. It’s obviously meant to turn the audience on because there’s no one else in the room with Marina.
Completing the trinity of heroines in Action Jackson is Anusha, Jai’s wife. Within minutes of her first appearance, she’s been physically manhandled by bad guys. She gets one song sequence to catch her breath and then again becomes the victim of a violent attack. This time, her head is shoved through a car window and she’s punched, causing jets of blood to streak across the big screen. Then Anusha is stabbed. Somehow, she survives all this, only to be kidnapped yet again. Once more, she’s facing bad guys and it’s her fate to be bashed up.
Add to this the general, bloody violence that Jai and Vishy inflict upon everyone who gets in their way in ActionJackson, and you’ve got to wonder about the definition of ‘family entertainment’ in India. In one fight sequence, we’re shown a man’s neck being contorted at an angle that belongs in horror movies, accompanied by the sound of breaking bone. Blood spurts out of bodies in Action Jackson like paan juice does out of auto rickshaw and taxi drivers on Linking Road. There are more sounds of pain than there are dialogues in the film.
According to the Central Board of Film Certification in India, this is U/A entertainment, or “unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for children below the age of 12.” This means the CBFC thinks it’s fine for children of any age to see all this, as long as those under 12 are accompanied by an adult. In contrast, a foreign film that has a hint of nudity or a prolonged kiss deserves to be rated ‘A’ (so that it’s restricted to adult audiences) and the television channel Comedy Central deserves to be banned because it airs content considered offensive by a viewer.
Of course the CBFC is not responsible for cable channels and their programming, but it is a regulatory body that toes the state’s line, which should have some consistency across media. This is especially necessary since the films that CBFC certifies for general entertainment end up being shown on television. The way the content of a film like ActionJackson is judged makes it uncomfortably clear that films and television in India don’t get rated or evaluated as much as censored.
There’s no clarity on what will be considered acceptable by those who judge and evaluate creative content in India and when Bollywood and its big bucks enter the arena, double standards become the norm. Had Action Jackson been a smaller Bollywood film, like Haider, it would probably have had to go through dozens of cuts. Keep in mind director Vishal Bharadwaj had to edit shots of corpses, torture as well as one of Shraddha Kapoor’s bare back from Haider in order to get the U/A rating. Action Jackson is littered with mutilated dead bodies and Marina flashes various body parts, but has the same rating as Haider.
The reason why Bollywood works hard to secure U and U/A ratings is money. Had Action Jackson been rated A — as it would have had this same film been in English for example — it wouldn’t be able to pass off as a family entertainer and far fewer people would be able to see it. On television, it would have been edited to about one third its length and fewer brands would want to be associated with it because it’s “adult”. As a result, getting ads for its telecast would be more difficult. This would mean the satellite rights would be priced lower and a major source of earnings would be compromised. Consequently, Action Jackson is certified U/A and will be aired on Star Gold as a film that can be watched by the entire family. Chances are, there will be no consumer complaints or temporary bans like what Comedy Central faced recently.
What Action Jackson exposes, literally and figuratively, countless impressionable minds to is infinitely worse than any of Comedy Central’s programming. The channel’s content is made up of re-runs of sitcoms like Psych, sketch shows, improv comedy like Whose Line is it Anyway?, prank shows like Punk’d and variety shows like Saturday Night Live. Not all its programming is good, but there’s no doubt that everything the channel airs is meant to be seen as a joke.
In contrast, you have Action Jackson, which is not only filled with graphic content but is packaged as something that is general entertainment when it’s not. There’s also the thorny topic of Bollywood being aspirational for many Indians. This doesn’t mean that those who see Action Jackson will want to be gangsters and kill people with swords in suburban Mumbai. However, to pretend that the regressive attitudes in the film will not have any impact upon the audience is to put on blinkers while considering the question of popular cinema’s effects upon an audience.
All films and blockbusters in particular walk a tightrope between reality and fantasy. There’s a lot that’s fake, but obscene amounts of money are spent to make the fake seem credible. Add to that a publicity campaign that suggests actors are similar to the roles they play — this is why we know about actors who do their own stunts and/or perform acts of kindness or generosity that make them seem more like the on-screen heroes — and you get a weirdly persuasive product that is popularly known as the blockbuster. Its impact is much more forceful here because of the limited presence of alternative forms of entertainment that offer people counters to the worldview presented in Bollywood films.
The point at which regulatory bodies like CBFC owe audiences some explanation is when these big-budget films are treated differently than other forms of entertainment. When a film like Action Jackson is rated U/A and Comedy Central’s programming is considered deserving of a ban, it sounds schizophrenic rather than logical. It seems the powers governing India don’t think audiences can wrap their heads around the idea that the television shows on Comedy Central are attempts at humour — even though the channel has the word “comedy” in its name — but people and children will be able to insulate themselves from the psychological impact of watching the gory, sexualised imagery in a film like Action Jackson.
Apparently, hearing abuses in English or encountering words like “butt”, “vagina” and “bitch” on television will pervert viewers as will seeing sketches with laughter tracks that make no secret that what’s showing on screen is a joke. However, watching a film that shows women as idiots, punching bags and sexually obsessive won’t have any psychological impact, according to the regulatory bodies in India. Kids and parents will be untroubled by the sight of actress Yami Gautam shivering with fear because she’s surrounded by violent men who want to kill her for no logical reason. No one watching the film in a theatre or at home when Action Jackson shows on Star Gold will be affected by the sight of Gautam’s head being shoved through a car window, or her face being punched so hard that blood shoots out of her nose and mouth.
But a comedy sketch? That’s too much for Indians to handle.