The efforts by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) through the years to live up to its sobriquet “censor board” have never been as intense, or as ludicrous, as seen in its determination to trip up the film Udta Punjab on the ground that it defames Punjab by projecting the state’s drug problem. The review panel of the CBFC suggested many cuts, including the ridiculous proposition to remove references to Punjab in the title and in the dialogues, for the film to be eligible for certification. The producers of the film claimed that the report of the review panel was provided to them only after they approached the Bombay High Court.
Just when Bollywood seems to be emerging from its cocoon of fantasy films to create works that reflect India’s current realities, the CBFC seems to be making a deliberate attempt to stall it. Chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani has got it all wrong about the mandate of the CBFC. He and the board seem unable to fathom that the CBFC has not been established to provide a moral compass to filmmakers or act as a political filter. It is not for the CBFC, a quasi-judicial body, to act as the government’s censor, as in the days of the Emergency. Films, like all works of art, try to speak the uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. That’s the morality of art and, Udta Punjab, appears to have tried to speak the truth, which appears to have upset the CBFC panel members.
Udta Punjab is said to depict in stark manner the widespread problem of drugs in Punjab. Why should such a film become a target of the “censor” board unless some people want to hide this reality? The drug problem in Punjab, as evident in the ongoing investigative series in this newspaper, has many layers. It’s as much about politics as it is about law and justice. The Akali Dal, in office for a decade, has been defensive about it, providing the opposition Congress, which too is guilty of ignoring the problem when it was in power, and the Aam Aadmi Party, with ammunition to target the government. With the assembly elections a few months away, the Akalis seem to attack any discussion of Punjab’s drug problem as “a conspiracy to defame” the youth of the state. The BJP, an ally of the Akali Dal, appears a willing partner in this strategy. Nihalani, who has taken every opportunity to advertise his admiration for Prime Minister Modi and gratitude to the BJP, has been remarkably sounding like the Akali leadership on the issue. How much better it would have been, both for politics and policy, had the Akali Dal-BJP coalition welcomed the film, if not as the complete truth, as a timely and much needed wake-up call to a social problem that needs to be addressed urgently.