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Who are we trying to kid?

  • Published at 07:54 pm August 25th, 2015

Can this really be right?

“The government is concerned about local onions getting smuggled to India.”

So says the back page headline in black and white, next to reports on human trafficking and mass graves, and a plea by environmentalists for India to rethink its river-linking plans.

Now, I’m far from naive, but I never knew we were supposed to be concerned about local onions getting smuggled to India. So perplexed was I that I had to check with colleagues that “local onions getting smuggled” wasn’t a euphemism for something else.

Have you ever been concerned about local onions being smuggled to India? Well, maybe you are, and I just didn’t get the memo.

Perhaps all across the land, people are waking up missing the smell of onions, and cursing farmers for trying to make a living. And the Ministry of Commerce is right to be concerned about local traders looking to make “a windfall profit by smuggling local onions since its production cost here is less than its current price in India.”

How foolish of me to think it was okay for traders and farmers to try and sell their patriotic produce where they could make the most profit.

There was I, with my absurdist comedian’s hat on, thinking that deaths from people smuggling might be a more important concern for the government. Or that India’s river-linking plans, ever so slightly reminiscent of the Soviet era planning megalomania that drained the Aral Sea, ought to be higher up the agenda than some of our neighbours paying good money for “our onions.”

I stand corrected. But still confused.

Should I be happy that in Bangladesh, the government and newspaper headlines supply all the satire one could possibly need? Or annoyed that it often makes a comedian’s job harder? People have become so used to absurdity in daily life that they will either easily trump any curiosity you take the time to point out, or look at you contemptuously as if you’ve just stated the tritely obvious, or made an offensive smell.

The sad part of this blasé attitude is that it means a lot of us will put up with any old nonsense and have simply stopped caring.

Given all this, I have been glad to hear a lot of discussion about the decision by Sirajul Islam Rony, president of the Bangladesh National Garments Workers Employee League, to get the High Court to block the screening of a new Bangladeshi-produced film about Rana Plaza. 

I managed to see the trailer for this a few days ago, and think it’s fair to guess even the director’s best blind friend will not claim them to be the next Paul Greengrass or Tareque Masud. But then again, there was nothing in it to suggest it is not an honest effort to make a topical Bangla film out of the heroic story of Reshma Begum, the garment worker rescued from the debris 17 days after Rana Plaza’s collapse killed 1,136 people.

How or why a leader of a workers’ organisation could argue that this “will spark negative reactions among people at home and abroad,” when Rana Plaza has been one of the world’s biggest news events of recent years, is frankly beyond me. Judging from social media comment, political differences with the director might lie behind this, but the bigger absurdity in my view is that the court chose to act on his complaints.

When you consider the surreal guidelines under which the Bangladesh Film Censor Board operates, it is a wonder that any film ever gets passed at all. The fact that the censor board cleared ‘Rana Plaza’, when in the past it has managed to find reasons to impede exceptional and wholly inoffensive works, infamously so in the case of Tareque Masud’s masterpiece Matir Moina, ought to have told the court everything it needed to hear.

Take a look if you don’t believe me at the Code for Censorship of Films in Bangladesh issued in 1985 under the Bangladesh Censorship of Films Act, 1977. It merits a careful read and is more entertaining than most things you will download at work from the web this week.

Leave aside 21st century realities of Internet streams and DVDs and ponder on the repressed mentality that this law instructs censors to think with when examining and certifying films for public exhibition.

Even though I would much prefer the C in censor to be changed to classification to allow adults to make their own decisions, I’m not actually complaining about censorship as a concept here. Indeed, in retrospect, I am grateful that when I saw Gone Girl in a Dhaka cinema last year, the board had tastefully and unnoticeably obscured a glimpse of Ben Affleck’s appendage, while leaving intact the Hollywood thriller’s adult language and subject matter.

It is the censorious and utterly hypocritical mindset embedded in our society, which is reflected in the censorship code, at which we should all be looking. You may not object to its eight headings, security, law and order, plagiarism, and so forth, but the devil as ever, is in the detail.

Literally so in the case of Section VI part h, which tells the censor to look out for films which show ''science as a means of acquiring devilish powers by master criminals and highly equipped and most modern laboratory as his headquarters.''

No need to spend much time on the heading called “bestiality” by the way. In this case, even our habitually prescriptive law-makers deemed it unnecessary to state the obvious. That section is not about the standard definition of the word, but about more general cruelty to animals.

Part (c) under International Relations is quite interesting, as it requires the censor to be concerned about any film that “portrays maliciously incidents or sequences which are prejudicial to the prestige or history of any people, race, or nation.” Shouldn’t this rule out many war films?

You may ask the same for action movies under the provisions on portrayals of criminal behaviour.

More revealingly, under immorality or obscenity, the note at the end expressly states: 

“This covers kissing, hugging, and embracing, which should not be allowed in films of sub-continental origin. This violates accepted canons of culture of these countries. Kissing may, however, be allowed in case of foreign films only. Hugging and embracing may be allowed in sub-continental films subject to the requirements of the story, provided that the same do not appear to be suggestive or of suggestive nature.”

Beyond satire. Nothing need be added. You only have to read it aloud.

People sometimes ask why, in this youthful nation where half the population is under 24, so many institutions are led by people in their 60s, who remember the 60s. I myself, on the other hand, wonder why many of these leaders take their morality and attitude to sex from the 1660s.

Of course, you might also be offended that the state treats adult citizens as if they are innocent, easily scandalised children with a penchant for puritanism combined with hypocrisy. In which case, you should probably lobby to get the law changed. That’s not a comic’s job.

Instead, I’m just going to ask two questions: If the code for censorship of films in Bangladesh has been around since 1985, then hasn’t it been read by at least some of the many barristers who have been trained in the last 30 years? Hasn’t at least one of them seen anything funny in it?