Tan’s Uncut List of Fine Singaporean Incisions - Namita Malhotra

Namita Malhotra

Royston Tan’s film Cut is a highly acclaimed short film on censorship that was made in defiance of the 27 cuts that Tan’s previous film 15 was subjected to. In this short satirical musical, a censor board official in Singapore meets her biggest fan in the supermarket. The fan goes into a rhapsody over the sheer artistry and brilliance of her cuts that have changed the narratives of remarkably violent and/or sexual films likeSwimming Pool, Hong Kong’s Purple StormScratch, and,Intimacy, to benign films that resemble sappy greeting cards.

Debates around censorship are often configured between the State and the film maker, overlooking the ubiquitous censor board official, and this short film brings to the forefront the figure of the censor board official, her or his tastes, interests and facets of her personality. When Tan’s film 15 was subjected to the surgical trauma of multiple cuts by the censor board, Tan madeCut – a vicious stab at the Singapore censorship regime, which is brilliantly ironical and funny.

A censorship regime necessarily implies that a small group of people, whether smirking judges, rule-making legislators or fastidious censor board officials can determine what the public can watch. Tan’s film plays with the idea of the fantasy of the regulatory authorities to be adored and appreciated for their work. In a world where the film makers are creative rebels, the iconoclasts, and the brilliant visionaries, how come we don’t notice the ubiquitous spectacled censor board official watching films with a hungry passion and a ready scissor to do snippety snip with, while still keeping a coherent narrative?

The chance meeting between the uptight official and the geeky fan begins with the fan exclaiming – ‘You know, I’m your biggest fan. I know every cut you’ve made in the history of cinema.’ This short film uses contemporary pop songs and ballads, like Thank you for the music (Thank you to the censors), and is packed with kitschy dance numbers. The fan then proceeds to list a remarkably long list of cuts. ‘There were two cuts in Titanic, two in Swimming Pool, one in City of God, and the most important scene was cut in Y tu mama tambien….’ and the seemingly never ending list goes on and on

Tan’s list of fine incisions made by the Singaporean censorship authorities, has the sheer fantastical quality of Borges’ list of animals found in a Chinese encyclopedia, that include animals that are ‘i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush’ and oddly would never belong together, and only meet in the space of the making of such a list, or as Foucault says, in the non-space of language.

One of the particularly arch comments made to the stoic censor board official in Cut is about her cuts in Chicago to remove references to pussy in the songs, and how the censor board ‘took on a new challenge to display their musical skills, and even Andrew Lloyd Webber cannot reedit his songs the way you can’. And, of course, to ask, whether her husband is also cut.

An obvious parallel in the Indian context is the 21 cuts that Anand Patwardhan was asked to make by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in his film War and Peace. The list contains scenes like:-

Cut 1 ‘Delete the visuals of Gandhiji being shot by Nathuram Godse’
Cut 5 ‘Delete the commentary “BJP is faced with growing criticism” ’
Cut 7 ‘Delete the entire sequence, visuals and dialogues spoken by dalit leaders including all references to Lord Buddha’
Cut 8 ‘Delete the reference to BJP uttered by villager’
Cut 11 ‘Delete the visual of ‘Hindu rath’
Cut 21. GENERAL CUT ‘Delete the entire visuals and
dialogues of all political leaders, including President, Prime Minister and Ministers’

Though Cut seems relevant to most countries where there is a censorship regime, it is particularly relevant in India, because of the existence of pre-censorship of cinema, in contrast to either television or books. In Cut, the bewildered fan asks of the censor board official – ‘But who looks after your moral welfare. How do you resist the temptation to become a call girl, when you watch the uncut version of Chicago, a drug addict when you watchTrainspotting or a lesbian after Boys don’t Cry, or a serial killer when you watch the Japanese film Battle Royale.

Inspite of the fact that Tan’s film is a vitriolic response to the regime in Singapore, it actually makes a far more complicated argument about censorship than the accepted model of viewing it as a prohibition on freedom of speech and expression. Annette Kuhn’s work on censorship makes the argument that to look at censorship as a prohibitive gesture of power, ‘does not go far enough, and may actually inhibit our understanding of how, and with what effects, the powers involved in film censorship work’. A prohibition/ institutions model of viewing censorship does not allow us to see that the law is not just interested in prohibiting a certain kind of seeing, but also equally interested in suggesting a proper way of seeing. Censorship has to be understood as power that emerges in concrete sets of relations, rather than an institutional privilege. Thus, in this case, it is far more useful to view censorship not so much as the imposition of rules on a pre-constituted entity (a cinematographic film), but as an ongoing process of constituting objects from and for its own practices.

Kuhn’s work on the productive discourse of censorship and Foucault’s work on re-conceptualising power provides a way to look at censorship not in terms of prohibition or erasure, but that censorship depends on the production of a range of effects. One instance is the creation of the ideal viewer who has to be discursively crafted. All regulatory fantasies of censorship authorities are played out with this imaginary viewer in mind, with the State adopting many roles, of Benevolent Daddies protecting an infantile vulnerable viewer (parens patriae), of avuncular authorities investigating the nature of the viewer, or as Nurturing Nannies (as Tan’s film describes) trying to circumscribe the world that the viewer is exposed to. In the end, the abstract viewer in law and policy, is mostly mobilised as a category of regulation. The abstract viewer is made more intelligible through legal and juridical discourses that allow for classification and administration of the public/viewer by regulatory authorities. It is perhaps ironical that it is the legal and juridical fantasy of sexual deviance, violence, and depravity that would result from the untrammelled flow of cinema, is what allows for the creation of the precise fantasy of disciplined public in a theatre watching films in an orderly fashion.

Kuhn’s argument is that censorship is often viewed as a blackening out of moments that can then not reach the viewer, but that instead we should find discursive modes to talk about film censorship that takes into account allegedly diverse phenomena. Tan’s film is one way of finding a discursive mode to talk about film censorship that takes into account the State-produced discourse around nation building, moral panics around sexuality, spatial anxieties over exhibition and theatre spaces, legal dilemmas around piracy and copyright. Cut absurdly invests the process of censorship with creativity, and instead of erasure through censorship, in fact, makes it seem as if a wholly different film is possible. The fan exclaims to the censor board official – ‘In the acclaimed film Eight Women, cut one woman, so there are seven women only’. The notion of a productive discourse on censorship, is creatively explored in Tan’s film, where instead of an erasure, censorship leads to a range of effects in a riotous colourful conversation about films, pumped up remixed songs and synchronized dancing.

The most blasphemous tongue-in-cheek moment in the film, is when the geeky fan tells the official that the Pirates Association is eternally grateful, because the huge amount of cuts by the Board, has led to an incredible jump of 60% increase in their sales. Perhaps that is the contradictory reality that all regulatory mechanisms have to face these days, the leak of information regardless of control, in bits and bytes into various modes of circulation to eventually lead viewers into seeing what they want.

Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, talks about the creation of an ironic political myth that is faithful to feminism, socialism and materialism. And, in the context of film censorship, Tan’s film Cut uses irony as ‘a rhetorical strategy and a political method’, that is about ‘humour and serious play’. As the geeky fan sings in Tan’s film – ‘Thank you to the censors, for the scenes you’re chopping, for all the crimes you’re stopping . So thank you, Madam Censor, for saving our country’.

Namita Malhotra is a media practitioner and legal researcher at the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, India. She works on issues of media censorship, media laws, intellectual property, and open content. She teaches a course on Rethinking Media Laws at a women’s college and has conducted sessions for the Censor Board of India (the southern region) on the tangled history of censorship and cinema.