By Amit Roy
THE British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is planning a “Bollywood takeover” for Diwali because its CEO David Austin is keen to establish a close working relationship with the British Asian community.
“We are doing actually quite a bit for Diwali,” Austin told Eastern Eye in an exclusive interview.
For a start, the BBFC wants to explain how it classifies Bollywood movies which constitute an important part of the UK film market. Most years, the BBFC gives classifications – they range from U to PG, 12A, 12, 15, 18, R18 – to about 1,000 movies, of which between 13 per cent and 16 per cent are south Asian. Since 2018, the BBFC has classified 265 south Asian films.
The BBFC is financed through charging production companies £7.50 a minute to watch their films, which makes it about £1,000 to sit through the average two-hour movie. The BBFC works with producers to introduce cuts or digital alternations in order to reduce a film’s classification from say, 15, to 12A – the one which most Bollywood distributors seek.
Austin referred to the Bollywood movie Panga, released by Disney. “It was the fourth highest grossing film for Disney in 2017 after Beauty and the Beast, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge. And it took $330 million [£255m] in the global box office. So there’s a big market for Bollywood content, and the UK is a significant part of that market.”
Austin, a former diplomat, is familiar with India and Bangladesh since he served for three years in Dhaka. He jokes his present job “is a lot safer” than his previous one.
Based as part of a peace mission in Belgrade for 18 months during the Bosnian War, he was frequently shot at in and around Sarajevo, he recalled.
In the week beginning November 9, the BBFC is planning a whole package of Bollywood activities. People will have to make their own arrangements to access selected Bollywood movies from Netflix, Amazon Video, Sky Store, Apple TV and the like, but the BBFC is providing fun packages “to enhance viewing pleasure” for the entire family.
There is a movie pack for Panga. There will be social media posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, Good Newz, Kesari and Saaho. Other movies, such as Taare Zameen Par, Kaaka Muttai and Bigil, will figure in podcasts. And there will be “Listicles” – a relatively new word about packing movie information into brief messages – for Lagaan and Devdas.
Austin said: “We are going to focus on the biggest Bollywood blockbusters.”
The advice from the BBFC – it is also promoting such films as Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Lego Movie, The King’s Speech, and Spectre (“Fancy putting yourself into the shoes of 007?”), Star Wars prequels and Star Wars – is: “Coming together as a family is more important than ever, that’s why we’ve put together some movie activity packs, which you and your family can use before you grab some popcorn and a blanket, head to the sofa, and throw a good old-fashioned movie night.
“The packs contain everything you need to set up a fun film night, which is suitable for all the family. They include film suggestions, along with information about the age rating and ratings info. They also include fun, film-related activity sections for the kids – and some discussion points at the end, so when the credits roll, you can have a discussion as a family about what you’ve all just seen.”
The British Board of Film Censors, which was established in 1912, changed its name to the British Board of Film Classification in 1984.
“We don’t do censorship here,” emphasised Austin. “One of the reasons that we’re not censors is that the overwhelming desire of the public is for free speech, while helping to protect children. So that’s why we use the classification system. And one of our stated goals is that the film should reach the widest audience for which the film is suitable.”
The dozen or so people who watch the movies for the BBFC are no longer called censors but “compliance officers”. They include British Asians.
The BBFC’s annual report for 2019 observed: “Violence in south Asian films is a frequent factor in their reaching the 15 category. Examples of this in 2019 include the Hindi-language historical war drama Kesari and the modern-day crime action thriller Saaho, which was released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu versions. The classification process highlighted an emphasis on injuries and blood in scenes of strong violence that could not be accommodated at the 12A category requested by the companies. In both cases, we determined that cuts for 12A would not be viable as their extent would have a significantly damaging effect on the films, which we rated 15.”
Every four years, the BBFC consults some 10,000 people across the UK to assess “what they think is acceptable in terms of sex, violence, language, discrimination, drug misuse – and we distil all that information into our classification guidelines that are published”.
Over the past 20 years, society’s attitudes to what is shown on the screen have shifted on many issues, Austin pointed out. “In relation to consensual sex between adults, people are much more tolerant than they were back in the 1990s. When it comes to depictions of racism, people are much less tolerant. Other areas that are of more concern now are depictions of mental health and teenagers’ mental health, in particular. We’re much more aware of issues around self-harm and suicide.”
On diversity in the UK and in the US, Austin reckons “progress has been made over the last 20 years. But certainly more needs to be done. If you look at the top box-office films in the UK 20 years ago, there was not a single black actor in a lead role whereas this year, there have already been several black actors in lead roles. And there is an audience for these films – Black Panther, Hidden Figures, Selma and Blinded by the Light. These are all really important films that have performed well at the box office. And several of these explore the issues of diversity.”
Talking about depictions of gay relationships, Austin said: “We are exactly where we are with heterosexual relationships. We make no difference whatsoever. They’re treated in exactly the same way.”
He acknowledged British Asian audiences were slightly different. “South Asian audiences tend to be a little bit more tolerant of violence than the general population. That’s partly because of the nature of the violence in some films with which they become very familiar over the years. It’s quite unrealistic and exaggerated. The violence is almost theatrical in many Bollywood films, which makes it acceptable at a lower category than had it been more realistic and sadistic.
“But south Asian audiences tend to be slightly less accepting of sexual content.”
Austin described cinema as “an important part of the cultural life of any country. It’s something that brings people together, there’s no substitute.”
The BBFC will not get drawn into political controversies that might affect a film’s release in India. There were protests, for example, over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat and its alleged suggestion of a love affair between a Hindi queen and a Muslim invader.
Austin revealed: “We were approached by a group of people who were unhappy with the film being released at all in the UK. Now, that’s not our choice. We don’t decide what to release. We just classify what distributors give to us to classify.
“They told us politely that they were going to demonstrate outside our office against the release of the film. And we said, ‘That’s perfectly fine. You probably should tell the police you’re going to be doing that.’ In the end they didn’t demonstrate. But we do talk to the south Asian community. And so we were aware of the issues that can happen in south Asia around different interpretations and different views of history.
“But Padmaavat was just a straightforward classification decision – a 12A.”
Austin’s favourite cinema choices
Austin has loved movies ever since he watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a boy growing up in Dudley.
While serving in Dhaka in Bangladesh, he made brave trips to the cinema. “It was very noisy. The audience was just hugely excited. It was like a social event. It wasn’t sitting in silence in a darkened room. It was kind of partying in a darkened room, it seemed to me. But I did enjoy it. It’s very different to what I was what I was used to.”
Asked for his five favourite movies that he would take to his desert island, he told Eastern Eye: “My favourite film is Amadeus. I probably have to take a sci-fi film, so probably Blade Runner because I love it. I’d probably take Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Apocalypse Now – I’m a big fan of that movie.
“And a Bollywood film that I’ve watched with my family many times, and we have the soundtrack as well is Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.
“We love it. It has such a fantastic cast and it’s a huge, huge production with these massive dance routines and brilliant songs. It’s so heart-warming as well, the family coming back together after a rift.”
Panga movie pack: Following your dreams
The BBFC’s movie pack for Panga highlights the Hindi language sports drama which was released in January this year and became an international hit.
Directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and produced by Fox Star Studios, the movie features Kangana Ranaut, Jassi Gill, Richa Chadda and Neena Gupta, and depicts the life of a kabaddi player.
The pack asks children to look for a number of words in a crossword grid, among them Panga, kabaddi, offence, Jaya and Prashant [names of characters in the film].
Children are also encouraged to print out their own tickets and design a movie poster: “… Use bright colours, and be as creative as you like. We’d love to see your creation, so your parents can take a photo of it and tag the BBFC on social media.”
After watching the film, viewers are invited to “talk about the film”.
Some of the questions include: “How does the encouragement from Prashant and Adi help Jaya reach her goals? Was there a time you had to support your family in achieving something? Why is it important for family to support each other’s dreams? Panga teaches us that it’s never too late to follow our dreams. What does Jaya’s journey tell you about not giving up? Can you think of a time you had to work hard to achieve your goals?”
“The film has been praised for its strong female characters. Why do you think that’s important? Do you think women are well represented in film?”