With Udta Punjab saved, is it time to rethink film censorship?
Udta Punjab, a film directed by Abhishek Chaubey, highlighting the rampant drug abuse in the state of Punjab, reopened the age old debate of censorship in Indian cinema. When the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) demanded 89 cuts in the film, they probably did not expect the backlash that eventually resulted in the Bombay High Court quashing the proposed cuts and allowing the film to be screened with just one cut.
The CBFC had overstepped its bounds, yet again, and had been rightly knocked back by the judiciary. Is it now time to rethink film censorship altogether?
Punjab’s drug problem
According to research backed by All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), nearly 8.6 lakh of the 2.77 crore population of Punjab, consume drugs. Heroin is the most popular drug with the rate of heroin abuse among 15 to 25 year olds in border areas rising as high as 75%. The percentage drops marginally to 73% in other rural areas in the region.
Given that films often mirror society and sometimes intend to influence popular opinion about these matters, you would be forgiven to think that drug addiction in Punjab is a serious enough topic to bring to the country’s notice.
CBFC’s questionable track record
The CBFC has long been inconsistent with its decisions. One of the guidelines of the Board reads:
“Any visuals or words which degrades or denigrates woman are not allowed”
The CBFC has no qualms in allowing movies such as ‘Mastizaade’ and ‘Kya Kool Hai Hum’, which sexually objectify women, to pass. It has no problem allowing derogatory and demeaning lyrics that refer to woman like items of consumption for men like “tandoori murg” and “bottle of liquor” in allowing scenes of a scantily clad woman dancing provocatively in front of men leering at her with unabashed lust. All in the name of `harmless’ entertainment.
And yet, the same CBFC bans films which show women in India combat real issues related to their fight for respect and assertion of their individuality. Movies like Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’, was banned for showing two married women in a homosexual relationship and Pan Nalin’s ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’ was censored for bad language and the depiction of the Goddess Kali which the censor board believed would affect religious sentiments, or even the movie ‘Queen’ where a woman’s bra was censored out due to the board finding it too vulgar for the audiences to view.
The struggles of the Indian independent film-maker
More than mainstream movies, it is alternative and independent films that bear the brunt of the Censor Board’s decisions. Very often small-budget film-makers cannot fight the Censor Board’s decisions. In the past, the CBFC has banned critically acclaimed films on grounds that they found objectionable. Films like Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Paanch’ and Deepa Mehta’s ‘Water’ were also not allowed to see the light of day because they displayed grim realities of Indian society which the CBFC officials felt were too sensitive for the media audiences. Parzania, which depicted the riots that occurred in Gujarat (which incidentally went on to win a national award) was also heavily censored and banned in the state.
Anurag Kashyap, one of the producers of Udta Punjab, took the matter to the Bombay High Court. The Bombay HC rightly (and emphatically) rejected the CBFC’s proposed cuts allowing Udta Punjab to be screened with just one cut. The court observed that “multiplex audiences are mature enough and people should be allowed to see the film as everybody has a choice”.
In a free society, where people have the choice of refusing to watch what they do not agree with, do we need a system which gives the right to some people to decide on behalf of the rest what can be shown to the public? Maybe it is time for the CBFC to censor itself.
Niharika Nayak is a reporter at The Manipal Journal.
The views expressed in the blog are personal.