In an interview with this newspaper a few months later, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore had unequivocally claimed that the Modi government is “not interested in censoring films”.
But it seems that the Central Board of Film Certification, which comes under the control of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, did not receive the memo. Director Abhishek Chaubey’s upcoming film, Udta Punjab, which explores drug abuse in the state of Punjab, has recently been at the receiving hand the CBFC’s heavy-handed diktats.
The movie, slated for release on July 17, has reportedly been subject to 89 cuts. Media reports indicate that the CBFC wanted the filmmaker to drop any references to the state, its town and cities and elections. As per the CBFC, the movie is an incendiary and defamatory work that misrepresents reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are two fundamental aspects to the above issue. One is political and the other institutional.
Although the Modi government has denied any involvement, there is little doubt that the CBFC is working overtime to keep its political masters in good humour. The movie is set in the state ruled by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) party led by the Badal clan in a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The ruling alliance in Punjab will face a stern test in the crucial Assembly election early next year. Critics argue that the movie will bring home the dark reality of Punjab’s drug problem to the larger public. Allegations surrounding the Badal clan’s involvement in the drug trade are yet to be proven in a court of law. But reports through the years by a cross-section of media houses have argued that there is a grain of truth to these allegations.
Certain members of the current ruling establishment in Punjab have been accused of actively encouraging the drug trade, in collusion with some state police and paramilitary personnel. In 2013, Shiromani Akali Dal leader Maninder Singh Aulakh had admitted to police interrogators that state government vehicles were used to run the drug syndicate. Aulakh was nabbed soon after former wrestler-turned-drug peddler Jagdish Singh Bhola was arrested by the Punjab Police on charges of orchestrating a massive drug racket in the state.
In a revelation that sent shockwaves across Punjab, Bhola had named Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal’s brother-in-law Bikram Majithia, a powerful minister in the state government, as one of those involved in the drug trade. Majithia was soon questioned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED).
Moreover, another Punjab government minister Sarwan Singh Phillaur had to resign after his son Damanvir Singh’s name came up during the investigation carried out by the Enforcement Directorate into the drug racket. Although the Punjab Police had reportedly submitted a four-page report to the state government way back in 2007, which contained the names of some highly influential politicians, state police officials, and security personnel involved in the drug trade, no action was taken.
It’s abundantly clear that the Punjab government and the Centre have done little to crack down on the drug trade. Moreover, a survey by the Narcotics Control Bureau has stated that a steady supply from across Punjab’s borders is making it next to impossible for state and central agencies to tackle the menace of drug addiction. If not complicit, the SAD-led government has at the very least been unable to curb the menace of drugs in the state.
In response, several Akali leaders have denounced the movie based on the trailer and its initial reviews. Attempts are being made to “defame Punjab” and that drug abuse is a nationwide problem, they argue. The CBFC has seemingly taken its cues from them. However, the CBFC does not seem to have realised that by clamping down on Udta Punjab, it has not only given due attention to the film but also to Punjab’s drug problem and the state government’s lack of control over the situation. In other words, the CBFC has scored a blatant self-goal. As a recent column in Scroll.in said, “If a mere movie can pose such a grave threat to possible re-election, it’s anybody guess what the anti-incumbency sentiment on the ground is like.”
Beyond the politics, however, the current controversy has once again raised serious questions on the CBFC. It is all about the institution. To the uninitiated, a movie cannot be released in theatres without a censor certificate. Reports indicate the move was refused a certificate due to the purported “sensitivity” of its material.
When did we as a country grow so sensitive about the depiction of pressing societal issues in films? What will the CBFC censor next? There is little doubt that the Modi government has displayed remarkable ineptitude in appointing competent individuals to take over the reins of important offices. The appointment of Pahaj Nihalani as CBFC chairman in January 2015 is a case in point. Ever since he took over, the CBFC has been hell- bent on undermining the freedom of expression.
In a bizarre announcement last year, Nihalani came up with a list of cuss words that may or may not be used on screen. The CBFC’s prudishness even extended to the last Bond film, where it hilariously shortened a kissing scene. Under the guise of protecting the sentiments of individuals, caste and religious groups, institutions, and the nation itself, the CBFC has sought to tighten its control over what filmmakers can or cannot produce.
The decision to appoint Nihalani has given the government numerous headaches. During the controversy over cuss words, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore had to fly down to Mumbai to soothe industry feathers that were ruffled by his shenanigans. The film fraternity has long sought the removal of Nihalani for his autocratic ways and censorious attempts to stifle creative freedom. Nonetheless, to only blame the Modi government or Nihalani for the current controversy is a little short-sighted. The current Udta Punjab controversy is only an extreme manifestation of the deep-seated institutional concerns that mar film certification in India.
Every ruling party has sought to manipulate the functioning of the CBFC for their own benefit. The previous UPA government had appointed the Justice Mukul Mudgal committee in 2013 to suggest ways in which it could revamp the CBFC. Among other things, the committee had suggested that the CBFC’s role should be limited to certification rather than censorship.
In other words, it recommended that instead of limiting what characters could say or do on screen, the CBFC needed to respect the intelligence of the cinema-going audience. To placate the film industry after the CBFC's chairman's antics last year, the Centre had appointed the Shyam Benegal-led committee. Suffice to say, the Benegal committee suggested the same.
Nonetheless, neither government has shown the courage of conviction to implement these recommendations and scale down the CBFC’s powers over filmmakers. Both the UPA and NDA have been merely obsessed with peddling their respective agendas. The difference between certification and censorship is vast. The Modi government would do well to understand these differences and effect changes to the way CBFC functions. Otherwise, the government can look forward to further headaches in the future.