Saturday, November 18, 2006

Taking Children to Bollywood Movies

I have two kids: 8 and 5. I tend to protect my kids from gore and high sexuality (first) and adult themes (second) when it comes to showing them movies. The ratings suggested by the MPAA are helpful in this regard. They are not perfect of course: the board doesn't give out these ratings in an absolute sense. It is often the result of negotiations between the filmmaker and the board.

Whenever a studio gives a filmmaker lots of money to make a movie it comes with strings attached, one of them usually is a contractual obligation to deliver a certain rating. Usually this is PG-13 because it is the sweet spot for most movies (U or PG if the fare is kiddie oriented). Its not unheard of for a filmmaker to put in 10 objectionable scenes and then barter it down to 5 with the board with well worn techniques such as accusing the board of censorship and claiming that the cuts will impact the artistic integrity of the film. While I'll admit that the board telling you what can and can't be seen by your target audience can tend towards censorship, the counter arguments seem lightweight to me. If you are delivering high art, you shouldn't care about the rating. And if you care about the rating, you've compromised your artistic integrity in some way anyway: it's just down to degrees of compromise.

A more comprehensive list of ratings that covers media such as movies, TV and games can be read here.

So, to the heart of the matter: the ratings on the Bollywood movies. If you've noticed Bollywood films are NOT RATED by the MPAA leaving us with no clue as to what to expect. Take a look at the three movies running in multiplexes across the US: Don, Umrao Jaan and Jaan-e-man.

The Indian Film Censor Board rates all movies released in India. According to the Wikipedia, the ratings systems is:

U : Universal (or Unrestricted): This rating is given to a movie which has no objectionable material. A movie which has a rating of U contains no or minor violence and sensuality. This rating is similar to G and PG of the MPAA.

U/A : Unrestricted with adult accompiament. This rating is given to a movie which contains mild violence, language and sensuality. The movie may contain some material unsuitable for children under 12. This rating is similar to 12A of BAFTA and PG-13 of the MPAA.

A : Adults: This rating is given to a movie which contains extreme violence, sexuality (partial nudity also included), frightening images and language. This rating is similar to R of the MPAA.

S : Special: This rating is very rare. This rating indicates that the movie is only for special class.

But when the movie is distributed in the US, these ratings aren't anywhere to be seen since they don't carry over from the Indian jurisdiction. Because of the child-oriented ecosystem in India, parents usually don't think much of exposing their kids to Bollywood movies early on. However, as Bollywood grows up, so do the themes in these movies. And what used to work 10 years ago is downright risky now. Exposing kids to Bollywood without thought will probably lead to therapy bills soon. Recently I saw a girl not more than 1 year old sitting in her father's lap and watching Don. She jumped out of her seat and yelped when SRK took a golf ball to a person's head. This old Indian parent-censoring technique of "close your eyes until I tell you to open them" doesn't work when things happen without warning.

So without proper ratings, what is a parent to do? Here are a few things I've done that might be helpful:

  1. Read about the movie on the Internet. If you are well informed (or you will be if you read enough), you'll be able to gauge the content of the movie from the theme, the filmmaker and his or her reputation and even the actors in the movie. (Hint: Bipasha Basu in a sex thriller might be one to pass for the kids, anything by Ram Gopal Varma should be scrutinized carefully).
  2. Watch the previews. The studios hit audiences with the best gore and sex in the trailers in order to pull people into theaters. You'll get a reasonable idea of what might be in store for your kids.
  3. Play it safe. If in doubt, pass on the movie and wait till your friends have seen it. Then ask them very pointed questions like: is there blood in the movie? do limbs get hacked off? are there explicit scenes of sexuality? is there violence against children. If still in doubt, watch the movie without your kids and wait for the DVD where you can keep a finger on the skip button.
What works really well is to keep an open mind about what kids should watch. You don't want to germinate Victorian kids because there will be a whiplash pretty soon. I tend to watch for violence before sex. Your kids will eventually go on to have a healthy sex life so if they catch some stuff here or there, it won't be the end of the world. But violence is optional in life and that needs the most control in terms of exposure.

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