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Timely observations

 MPost |  2016-06-11 21:54:26.0  |  New Delhi

 "The word censor is not anywhere in the act,” the court observed. “Your power is to certify films for public exhibition." On Monday, the court will pronounce its verdict on a plea filed by the film's producer challenging the cuts ordered by the Board. Earlier this week, the CBFC sought 13 cuts (not 89) in the film Udta Punjab which included references to Punjab, expletives, and drug scenes among other things.

 It also wanted the filmmakers to drop "Punjab" from the title, besides any references to the state, its town and cities and elections in the film. To the uninitiated, the upcoming film explores the menace of drug use in the state of Punjab. In response to the court's directives, the CBFC submitted that all the 13 changes including deletion of "Punjab" in the film title were justified and proper.

 As per the CBFC, the movie is an incendiary and defamatory work that misrepresents reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. National Award winning filmmaker Shyam Benegal has argued that the film does not denigrate Punjab and that it's a “laudable effort” by the filmmakers to bring to light the state's vulnerability to drug abuse.

 “But people are misreading the film," he said. “They are under the impression that it is anti-Punjab. I don’t think the film is anti-Punjab at all.” Benegal, who heads the government-appointed revamp panel of the Central Board of Film Certification, watched the movie earlier this week. Unfortunately for the film's producers, a movie cannot be released in theatres without a certificate from the CBFC.

As argued in these very columns, the current controversy is only an extreme manifestation of the deep-seated institutional problems that surround 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's recommendations were in line with its predecessor. 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.

 But in a positive development on Thursday, Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley said that film certification in the country is set to go through "some very radical changes" which will be announced soon, based on the recommendations of the Benegal committee. The censor board needs to be more liberal with its rules and regulations, Jaitley added.  The difference between certification and censorship is vast. But there is hope that the Modi government has begun to understand these differences. However, if it does end up as another false dawn, the audience will lose out once again and the government can look forward to further headaches in the future.

There is little doubt that the film has been subject to political interference. Media reports have suggested that the CBFC's refusal to give certification to the film is politically motivated, given that Punjab will hold Assembly elections in February 2017. The opposition has made the drug abuse in the state a major campaign issue. This has naturally shaken up the ruling Akali Dal-BJP coalition.

 It’s abundantly clear that the Punjab government and Centre have done little to crack down on the drug trade. If not complicit, the Akali Dal government has at the very least been unable to curb the menace of drugs. Numerous studies have shown that drug dependency has spread across the state. It has increased in the past decade and there are major gaps in the availability of treatment.

 At the eye of the storm in the current Udta Punjab controversy is CBFC chairman Pahaj Nihalani, who has been leading the charge to introduce cuts in the film. Without any basis in fact, Nihalani had accused one of the film’s producers of taking money from an opposition party to depict Punjab in a bad light. The CBFC chairman has probably forgotten the gravity of the drug menace in Punjab. Instead of slander, he would do well to read up on the subject. Moreover, such accusations are meant to divert the public from the real issue of a filmmaker’s right to free expression into a political battle.

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