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Unpacking The Politics Of 'Udta Punjab'

05/07/2016 8:38 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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It's a little too late to participate in the censorship debate around Udta Punjab, and I shall therefore not dwell on the specifics of it. Film-makers, scholars and creative professionals from across the country and outside have already come out in the public domain against it, and significant questions about the legal purview of the CBFC's right to "censor" films (as opposed to its declared prerogative of "certification") have been raised with a measure of urgency. Ministers of the central government have been forced to pitch in with sufficient caution, while the usual bureaucratic routines of committee-formation have been set in motion, with disclaimers of apolitical, independent investigation. In all of this, Pahlaj Nihalani -- the Censor Board chief doubling up as "PM ka chamcha" -- has ended up looking every bit the clown that he untiringly aspired to be. The censorship debate has for now been clinched -- with the apolitics of "mainstream" film-making finding succour and relief in extra-political judicial opinion about this movie being a moment of necessary public awareness about Punjab's drug-menace.

Bans on films like Udta Punjab... are understood as unfair because they prevent discussions on "public" issues (like drugs) -- films on avowedly "political" issues are not the citizen's headache.

There is a difficult question that lingers on, however. How many of these corporate media houses that devotedly lapped up Anurag Kashyap's sound-bites and Twitter wars as front-page-material for weeks, or the celebrated director-producer duos who flooded television channels and news floors with extempore speeches on the evil of censorship, will be enthused enough to report on the informal networks of bans that continue to claim Anand Patwardhan's Ram Ke Naam (1992) or Nakul Singh Sawhney's Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai (2015) or Subhradeep Chakravorty's En Dino Muzaffarnagar (2014) or Pankaj Butalia's Manipur Song (2009) or even Raj Amit Kumar's Unfreedom (2014)?

Censorship, in the process, has been reduced to a necessary apolitics of creativity, and is no longer a debate about the constitutional right to freedom of expression. Bans on films like Udta Punjab and India's Daughter are widely understood as unfair because they prevent discussions on "public" issues (like drugs and rape) -- meanwhile, films on avowedly "political" issues are not the citizen's headache. This uncritical division between the "public" and the "political" in terms of film content and their differing degrees of censorability have always been at the heart of definitions of the "mainstream". What is new about the current historical moment is that it makes a pathology out of the political, and forces an uncanny silence on all bleeding-heart sections of the media, industry and citizenry when it comes to that dirty word -- "politics".

The anti-censorship debate, as it plays out in our country today, is not in the least about freedom, but the substantive content of one's freedom. It inscribes new forms and alternative categories of sub-censorship, and obliquely goes on to erect a hierarchy of content from the point of view of legitimacy. Because, content of course can easily be equated with the legal-constitutional currency of "tendency" -- an intensely personal word! -- and brought within the "reasonable restrictions" to free expression as "deliberately", "intentionally", "maliciously" offensive.

The anti-censorship bastions within the film industry proceed from an assumed acceptance [that] "true" creative art... must self-censor all of its own political "intentions".

The anti-censorship bastions within the film industry proceed from an assumed acceptance of censorship as internal to the professions and performances of creativity. Because, "true" creative art -- may the public beware!--- must self-censor all of its own political "intentions".

To now come to Udta Punjab, the latest addition to the "national" discourse on censorship. It is important that we recognize that Abhishek Chaubey's film is not about the "public" significance of how drug-trafficking is swallowing up a state's population. Yes, the film uses that vocabulary, and so does the national media reportage on its content and intent. However, I would like to insist that Chaubey's is clearly a "political" work. However, that is not because it busts the nexus between the state, the police, private pharmaceutical companies and the political class in creating infrastructures of supply and access to drugs in Punjab. Instead, the film treads firm political ground by resolutely refusing to bring in a moral economy around the consumption of drugs. A document of public awareness skirts the political by alluding to a moralism behind every menace. The popular imagination around drug addiction precisely performs that same erasure -- and with great convenience! -- by invoking references to the moral character of addicts and by couching rehabilitative efforts as individual choices or larger socio-moral imperatives of non-governmental "seva". Udta Punjab does none of that. Quite on the contrary, it conceives of illegality within structures of state-aided practice, organized flows of industrial capital and profit-based networks of need or demand. In this, Punjab is only chosen as the most obvious site to enter into the political economy of the market for drugs.

Udta Punjab makes it unequivocally clear that drug-trafficking is an industrial institution facilitated by multiple infrastructures of governance, and therefore, to individualize it is to de-politicize it. Even in a doctor's (Kareena Kapoor) apparently single-handed attempt to stem the drug menace, there is no easy spectre of an NGO flashed as the possible route to solution. Instead, the film insistently ties the economy of drug-trafficking to the structural role of the state, and refers the question of redressal to constitutional authorities like the Election Commission or the courts. In this, Chaubey dismisses civil society efforts as misleading the terms of political critique by informalizing aid. The figure of Alia Bhatt as an unnamed migrant farm worker serves to highlight yet another question of how larger economic directions in labour policy and structural wage-inequalities within informal sectors of work contribute to the drug racket.

Udta makes it clear that drug-trafficking is an industrial institution facilitated by multiple infrastructures of governance... to individualize it is to de-politicize it.

Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the megastar rapper who strings banality into an aesthetic of popular consumption, is visibly modelled on the culture of criminality that goes into the making of a Yo Yo Honey Singh. Suffering a change of heart on being forced to share a prison cell with fellow criminals, Tommy returns to the stage amidst spectacles of popular frenzy. But now, instead of rapping away to unabashed sexism and racism, he starts making sense of his life on stage. In his audience's angry retaliations, Chaubey confronts us with the politics of a "drug culture" (as much as a "rape culture") which normalizes every assault on reason and sense as the social "norm" of consumption. We are made to realize that in a Yo Yo Honey Singh's stardom lies our complicity with the cultural logic of crime -- and to understand this is to resist the numbing of our senses that all contemporary consumer-cultures thrive on. The maddening delirium that commodities force on us is never a question of individual choice, but in fact, an assault by the industrial logics of production on our "sense" of the everyday.

The answer lies in recognizing the "politics" of living as a struggle against the forces of endless consumption. It is in seeing politics as immanent to every work of art, every text of a film. And in thus realizing that every act of censorship is an equal attack on our ability to see and know the conditions of everyday life for what they are.

And, there's no fiction of a Punjab that is less real than a Muzaffarnagar or a Kashmir.

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