In Bollywood, Punjab has been reduced to the point of caricature with its depiction of lush fields and Bhangra-performing Sikhs. Now a dark, gritty film about the drug menace in the state is about to release, called Udta Punjab, directed by Abhishek Chaubey, and the Censor Board is bent on cutting it to the bone.
You could be forgiven for missing the whole hubbub, because it means that you’ve at least had peace and silence in your life. And it means that you’re not watching news channels on TV and reading news on the internet, which is a good thing. It means that you’ve finally got for yourself a life. You’re probably happier than the rest of us, and you haven’t missed much, really.
But you have a missed a little bit, though. If Bollywood and politics are your areas of interest (which covers two of the three topics that all Indians are interested in, the other being cricket), then you will want to know a little about why Anurag Kashyap is at loggerheads with the CBFC, the Central Board for Film Certification, also affectionately called the ‘censor board’.
Here are a few things you need to know about the whole charade.
1. The phrase ‘censor board’ is a misnomer
A working committee headed by veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal has recommended that the CBFC should stick to the words in its name and perform only acts of certification of films, not their censorship. But the recommendations have not yet been implemented even though the name has now been changed, which means we now have this ridiculous situation where the organisation is called the CBFC and it merrily goes on its way forcing cuts on scenes they find offensive. What’s worse, everyone else calls them the censor board out of long habit, giving them credence in some twisted way.
2. Udta Punjab deals with the drug menace in Punjab
Not everything about the state of Punjab is blue skies, ripe mustard fields and foot-tapping Bhangra. An estimated Rs 7500 crores’ worth of drugs are consumed in Punjab every year, out of which 6500 crores account for heroin. There are 1.23 lakh people dependent on heroin in the state – many of them children and housewives – and the number of addicts in Punjab is four times the global average number.
Anurag Kashyap’s film, Udta Punjab, is set against this backdrop. This is an uncomfortable situation for the ruling party in Punjab, Akali Dal, which is suspected to have a hand in all the drug peddling going on in the state. What makes things even more interesting is that the Akali Dal has the support of the BJP who rules the centre, and Pahalaj Nihalani, the Censor Board chief, is known to be a staunch BJP supporter.
3. What cuts were recommended?
It’s not uncommon for a film to go through the CBFC and emerge with bleeps all over its body. In this case, the kind of cuts that were recommended had a political flavour to them. For instance, the filmmakers were asked to remove all instances of the word ‘Punjab’ from the movie, including the title. Words such as Jalandhar, Chandigarh, Amritsar, Ludhiana and Moga to be deleted from signage and background wherever they occur. Also, hear this: they wanted words such as MP, MLA and Parliament to be cut from the film as well.
The total number of cuts recommended for the film stood at 89, many of them as silly as the ones stated above. Such a political flavour to the recommendations strengthen the suspicion that there was the hand of a politician behind Pahalaj Nihalani’s actions.
4. The coming together of Bollywood
The fight first came to be waged by Anurag Kashyap alone, who refused the cuts and moved to the Tribunal, and then to the High Court. By and by, people from the fraternity came on board and voiced their discontent with the situation. Even Amitabh Bachchan, who has stayed aloof from political matters for a while now, has said that political influences must be stopped from affecting creative liberties of artists. On Arnab Goswami’s daily news debate show, The Newshour, he had so many guests that he could not fit them onto one screen.
5. The High Court slams down on the CBFC
The High Court has come down heavily on the CBFC, demanding reasons for all the recommended cuts, and criticising the members of the certification board for being behind the times. Among other things, the High Court told the CBFC that today’s generation of movie watchers are direct and have been brought up in the uncensored world of the internet, so insisting on censorship is misguided. ‘The public is the biggest censor,’ said the High Court judge. ‘CBFC should only certify, not censor.’
The full High Court judgement is going to happen on the 13th of June, 2016. The court has indicated that it will allow Udta Punjab to release with just one cut. While we can be super critical and question why a certification board should be allowed to make even that one cut, we do realise that it has come down from 89 to 1, so we shouldn’t be complaining too much.
This represents a big win for Anurag Kashyap and Udta Punjab in particular, but also the creative freedom and liberties in general. On a more practical note, Udta Punjab could not have asked for better nationwide coverage than this, and all of it for free, without spending a dime!