Retrograde. Bamboozlement! More Bamboozlement!

You Can't Please Everyone! by Kobita Sarkar

Rita Ray (1924-1983) was a regular cinephile, someone who certainly understood the art of it, someone who could interpret the things she saw on screen, someone who had strong views on cinema and what it ought to stand for. But her views underwent some drastic changes after she agreed to be on the advisory Panel of Censor Board. All of a sudden she found herself on the evil side, a side much cursed and secretly envied. Rita began to see things from the other side, the other side of the argument. Now she too asked herself the question, the rallying cry of that side, ‘What about the average person? Would he/she be able to handle it?’ At the same time she did wonder how to go about defining the ‘average’. She did note the rather unintentionally comic manner in which the serious business of Censoring was conducted. She took note of her fellow panelists, bored middle-aged women who had never seen a film in life, pretentious intellectuals who only wanted to be bothered about ‘art’ films, professors of philosophy who seemed out of place, uneducated traders, an occasional ‘too’ liberal woman, mostly men to fumed at the thought that a woman was enjoying a kiss, all those who had nothing better to do on their afternoons, people who sometimes did realize that they were part of a great process that kept a part of the country safe, the cultural and most important part of county safe.

Rita noticed how, unlike most other members of the panel, plunging necklines didn’t bother her as much as the increasing level of violence unleashed by men on scene. She makes a direct link between an Indian hero’s inability to kiss his heroine and his wont to hit her, almost as a better substitute. She questions the duplicity of Censor board that gives Bhumika an ‘A’ certificate just because its heroine wanted to lead her own life. She tackles the question of other duplicity, Censor and its response to foreign films, censor and its response to ‘art’ films. To find an answer to these questions, out of her own curiosity, in around 1966 she travelled to Britain, the country which first gave birth to censorship code in India. There she got to meet John Trevelyan. John Trevelyan at that time was the Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors. In answer to her questions he offers, ‘You can’t please everyone!’

In her work she came to understand his point. There will always be people who won’t be happy with the way censors work, with the thought of censor. But it is needed, the key is simple, censor has to stay one step behind, not two steps, just one step and it must certainly never try to go one step ahead. Later when Trevelyan quit his post under pressure for passing films like Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs, Ray concluded he, going against his own advice, perhaps was trying to go one step ahead of times. The other advice given by Trevelyan proved to be more helpful to Ray. He told her to go about the job with a sense of humour (apparently humour was one of the prerequisites for applying for censor job in Britain). It was humour that helped her when she had to deal with questionnaire that went like this:

 ‘If a film producer introduced a scene in which a man tried to seduce a woman and addressed her in the following ways would you consider it a misrepresentation of our culture? “How well-proportioned and rounded are your thighs and how charming your legs, resembling the tapering truck of an elephant; how round and plumb are your cheeks; how enchanting your bosom; how slender is your waist; glossy is your hair; your breast touching each other enhance their liveliness.” ‘If in depicting this scene, the lens of the camera is focussed on the woman’s thighs, legs and breasts, would you object to the scene on the ground that it distorted our culture or our ancient heritage?’
For all I know this may be a quotation from some eminent source, but I am always reduced to laughter –and have never learnt to answer the question seriously. It must have been thought up by someone with a sense of humour. 

 In between, she tries to answer questions like why were works of Mirnal Sen, Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak almost never censored, even the ones that were proclaimed as ‘anti-establishment’. She writes, 'Our film-makers, despite their protestations, given the opportunity, are unlikely to produce more than a political allegory. ’ It is a serious allegation but one that certainly has some merit.

Through all her years in the Censor Panel she kept a log of the nature and motivations of her odd job. The odd situations, the odd characters, the odd films, the odd scenes and the odd cuts. The result was ‘You can’t please everyone’ Film Censorship: The Inside Story written under the pseudonym Kobita Sarkar and published in 1982. It remains a unique work on understanding the working and motivation of Censor in India. And it is all the more unique because it was written by a witty woman who obviously loved Cinema.


Thanks to this book I now know that 'Satyam Shivam Sundaram' lead to obscenity charges on Raj Kapoor and Zeenat Aman in Kashmir. This bit to information now adds new meaning to the fact that when the film was released in Kashmir, a revolutionary school named Walden took its students to a special screening of the film.  


  1. Interesting book. By any chance do you know where to buy it from. Can't find it on any online book sites.

  2. I think the book is out of print, so finding it is quite a task. I came across a used copy on ebay and bought it.

  3. Hmmm.well, then I will have to look for used books as well. Ok can you just tell me the publisher please.

  4. IBH Publications. After her death...her family donated all her books and collections to a library in Calcutta. So those in that city might want to check out Rita Ray Memorial Library at Chitrabani.

  5. IBH has been bought by Amar Chitra Katha, so unless the rights have lapsed and the family decides to find another publisher, it seems unlikely that it would be reprinted. That would be a shame.

    Thanks for posting about the book.

  6. Imagine all the books left unread because of all these technicalities.

  7. @ bheema v: That's a good piece of info


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