March 25, 2013 – GQ India online
It’s intermission during Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s much-discussed, two-and-three-quarter-hour spectacle, which I’m seeing a day after it premieres in Juhu. So far, not a thing has been cut – not the eyeball gouging, or the hammer to the skull, or the gelatinous fountains of blood, or even the man being torn to pieces by dogs (horrible, by the way). In short: I’m pleased.
Django, which deals with slavery in the antebellum American south – plus also bounty hunters, funny klansmen and lessons in impeccable diction courtesy of Mr. Christoph Waltz – is a sparkling and witty tour de force with all the trademark Tarantino gestures: the wordplay, the goofiness, the ultra-hip self-awareness, the endless nods to B-movie tropes, the weird and conspicuous absence of sex-as-pleasure, and of course the totally over-the-top violence.
I, and I’m sure many others, had downloaded and watched Django ahead of time for fear of finding it shredded to nonsensical oblivion here in India, stillborn on the censor’s cutting room floor. Thus far, I’m pleasantly surprised.
In the second half, only two scenes get sliced up, which isn’t nearly bad enough to keep anyone from seeing this movie in theaters (please do, it’s a big screen sort of thing). But the scenes are interesting, if not unexpected. The first of the two (spoilers ahead, kinda) involves a nude Kerry Washington – curled up in a discreet fetal position – withdrawn from an underground torture cell called the ‘Hot Box’. The other involves lots of talk of castration, a flash of male nudity and the silhouetted V of Jaime Foxx’s thighs as he hangs upside down from the ceiling.
In the first of these we lose a pretty lovely aerial shot of this small beautiful body in a metal coffin surrounded by lush grass, from which we could easily extrapolate all sorts of symbolic meanings if we thought for a second that Tarantino would be into that sort of thing. It’s one of his more restrained images of torture (we’ve already seen the whippings and brandings and, again, seriously, those dogs) but also a terribly affecting one. Fine, though – no plot’s lost here. The second scene goes from a finely calibrated display of tension building complete with important plot points, to almost total nonsense.
Now this isn’t my first exposure to censorship at the Indian Cineplex. Back in 2009 I remember seeing The Reader in Delhi. Or rather, seeing some of The Reader since anything suggesting sex, which is pretty much the subject of that movie, was excised. When I saw Cloud Atlas at the end of last year, it too had a couple of scenes awkwardly sliced and diced. But there are differences here: 1) I dislike both of those movies, so I don’t feel all that cheated, and 2) neither movie uses violence in quite the same way as Django.
And this is maybe the most disturbing thing about this particular way of seeing this particular movie, which is saying something because it’s pretty dark to begin with. Censorship, I’m comfortable saying, is bad; adults should have choices about what they see. On top of which, I’d be willing to wager that somewhere around 90% of the people in the theater with me have already seen sex organs of both genders at least once. The annoyingly talkative 20-something boys directly next to me probably constitute the other 10%, but that’s neither here nor there.
Point being, more than in any film I’ve seen in India, Django Censored sends a clear message: bodies (oh, and also cigarettes) are bad, frightful things – except when subjected to unthinkable cruelty. It’s a problem I sometimes have with Tarantino generally (again, why does no one ever seem to have sex in a Tarantino movie and enjoy it?). But in Django, the censorship makes it worse.
I’ve seen this before (and I should say here it’s definitely not just an Indian problem; we do much the same thing in the States, though not quite so flagrantly). In May of last year, I found myself stranded with far more children than any sane person can tolerate on an overnight bus from Delhi to Manali. The conductor played the recent remake of Agneepath (really, really obtrusively loudly, I might add). That movie includes something like four lynchings. I can’t imagine I’m alone in thinking it’s damned scary to watch a man hoisted by his neck over the branch of a big tree by a bald and sinister Sanjay Dutt. And in what universe is that less damaging than a momentary glimpse of Jaime Foxx’s balls?
Now it’s not like the censors have ruined this movie. It’s still tremendously pleasurable to watch (check out Leonardo Dicaprio with the limp wrist and stony eyes having fun for once, Christoph Waltz practically patenting charm). But still, it’s irksome, and worse, reflects some pretty strange priorities being filtered down from on high.
And in the end it’s just annoying to be treated like a child, especially by such an obviously bad parent.