By the time you read this, you will most likely be aware that a ‘landmark judgement’ of sorts was awarded by the Bombay High Court to the makers of the upcoming drama Udta Punjab in their much-publicised fight against the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).
The producers of the film — directed by Abhishek Chaubey and featuring marquee stars such as Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor, and Diljit Dosanjh, a huge star in his home state Punjab — have been combating the CBFC’s draconian order of a jaw-dropping 89 cuts (13 orders amounting to 89 instances, to end the confusion) in court for the past week. These cuts included visual cuts and references that set the film in Punjab, on grounds that they defamed the state, and audio cuts of profanity. Oh, and they also wanted a film about drugs to… not show people doing drugs.
On Monday afternoon, Justice SC Dharmadhikari delivered a verdict that brought much joy to the film fraternity: Udta Punjab will now release in theatres this Friday with 88 of those proposed cuts retained, barring one shot of Kapoor, who plays a ‘rockstar’ named Tommy Singh in the film, urinating in front of a crowd during a concert. Clearly, the Bombay High Court isn’t hot on the idea of cheeky references to real-life incidents involving real-life rockstars.
Sure, it’s a relatively small price to pay, given that the film’s colourful language (as seen in its trailer), among other things, has been left completely untouched. An ecstatic Chaubey, during a chat with HuffPost India Bollywood Editor Ankur Pathak at the court premises, said: “I am not gonna be able to sleep tonight. The happiness hasn't sunk in yet. This is the film I wanted the audience to see."
But even as sunlight bursts through dark clouds, the horizon remains overcast. As the Udta Punjab battle went down to the wire, another one came up: Haraamkhor, an indie drama starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Masaan actress Shweta Tripathi, has been denied a certificate by the board’s Examining Committee. The reason: its ‘objectionable’ theme, which depicts an illicit relationship between a 14-year-old girl and her teacher. Meanwhile, a Gujarati film based on the reservations agitation led by Hardik Patel last year faces 100 cuts on grounds of verisimilitude.
Meanwhile, amidst celebratory tweets, filmmaker Hansal Mehta, whose acclaimed drama Aligarh went through the CBFC rigmarole just a few months ago, asked a pertinent question. “Must we always have to approach the courts for redressal of our grievances when there is a body appointed by the govt. to perform the very same task?” he tweeted. “If the CBFC is unable to interpret the guidelines without restricting artistic freedom, then why does the CBFC exist at all?”
He also drew attention to the plight of smaller filmmakers, some of whom may not have the resources or the time to fight legal battles. “Not every producer can afford excellent legal assistance like the producers of #UdtaPunjab, nor do they have the requisite strength to garner industry/media support,” he reasoned. “Let the #UdtaPunjab case not be a one-off incidence of collective outrage resulting in a positive outcome. We must rally behind the weak when they need it. Let the CBFC not exercise its autocracy on hapless and helpless producers who have no means or clout to fight.”
Dushyant Arora, a lawyer and columnist for Mumbai Mirror, tweeted:
We shouldn't be celebrating a court going through a movie with a comb and deciding what we should watch.The whole thing is bloody depressing
— Dushyant (@atti_cus) June 13, 2016
And it’s true — the whole situation, for all its immediate feel-good value, is depressing if you really think about it. For while the Bombay HC judgement sets many good precedents — such as a definitive idea of what the CBFC should and should not be doing — it also does the same thing at a higher level: playing a cooler 'nanny', which could change depending on the individual sitting on the judge's chair.
To complicate matters, Justice Dharmadhikari seems to have contradicted himself during the proceedings. On one hand, he berated the CBFC for ‘censoring’ films and for doubting the maturity of young audiences, he still conceded to the addition of three disclaimers to the film: that the makers do not promote the use of drugs (ironically the film itself condemns it), use of expletives and cuss words, and neither is it made with the intention to malign a particular state.
He reportedly also said something along the lines of this head-scratcher.
You can’t censor but you can suggest cuts, says the Bombay High Court. pic.twitter.com/N1elfNjQeb
— Nitin Pai (@acorn) June 13, 2016
Everyone, from the Minister of Information & Broadcasting Arun Jaitley to his Minister of State Rajyavardhan Rathore has spoken about how the CBFC needs to be a certification body, not one that censors. It’s an exasperatingly generic quotable quote, one that makes headlines and generates social media buzz every time it’s said.
However, months pass by and nothing happens. A Spectre (2015) happens, we outrage and call for his resignation, and it doesn’t happen. Then an Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), where the CBFC insisted on blurring out images of actual Hindu goddesses because they were in the same frame as girls wearing tank-tops and shorts. Then an Aligarh, whose trailer got an ‘A’ certificate (preventing it from being shown on TV) simply because the film was about a homosexual man, not that the trailer itself had anything that could be considered 'objectionable'.
... while the judgement might force Nihalani to curb his ways and stop imposing his own brand of morality upon the cinema of this rapidly changing nation, it also gives CBFC the power to know that they still needn’t fear repercussions unless the courts get involved.
Ironically, Nihalani himself seems to understand the heart of the problem better than many. An Economic Times report published Tuesday quotes him as saying: “I just want to point out that when the name of the board was changed from 'censor' to 'certification', the 1952 cinematograph Act that it follows, and its rule book were not changed.”
He added: “We were just following these and doing our job.”
In the same piece, the CBFC chairman has also, in an aggressively sarcastic manner, said: “We were doing what was expected of us — to ensure films are free of content that is unnecessarily abusive and defamatory. But from today, the producers are free to produce anything they want. They will now have the liberty to have obscenity, vulgarity in their movies.”
But who’s to say Nihalani will actually follow this order with every film unless he anticipates being taken to court? Not only does his track record show that he is supremely autocratic in his functioning, but despite multiple missteps and easily garnering the worst press any CBFC chairman has in the body’s history, the Ministry has made no moves to dismiss him from his position (ecstatic reports about his sacking in November last year turned out to be rumours).
And that’s all it comes down to, really. Because while the judgement might force Nihalani to curb his ways and stop imposing his own brand of morality upon the cinema of this rapidly changing nation, it also gives CBFC the power to know that they still needn’t fear repercussions unless the courts get involved. Let's not forget that this is a man who proposed an infamous 'cuss word list' for films last year, which, despite many reports saying it had been rejected by the Ministry, was still being used in practice until some people finally decided to challenge the CBFC's authority in court last week.
In light of this, there’s only one thing that can be done: if he can’t be fired and claims he’s just following the rulebook, change the damn rulebook. Following the recommendations of the Shyam Benegal Committee report would be a good place to start.