Hindi film Udta Punjab depicting drug abuse in India’s Punjab state has been grabbing eyeballs for all the wrong reasons. However the good news is that, following a Bombay High Court ruling, the film is finally set to be released on June 17

A film director once told me that he hopes his films get into some controversy with the Censor Board because that means a kind of publicity no amount of advertising or PR spending could ever ensure.

udta punjab

Anurag Kashyap, filmmaker and co-producer of the Hindi film Udta Punjab, could probably swear by that.

The film directed by Abhishek Chaubey (who debuted with the quirky Ishqiya) with a A-list star cast like Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Kareena Kapoor, has been on every Indian’s mind who is interested in watching Hindi films (and there are very few who are not.)

The film ran into huge trouble with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) when board members headed by Chairman Pahlaj Nihalani asked the film to cut 89 scenes and even take out Punjab from the title, although he denied the latter.

Finally after many bigwigs of Bollywood including Karan Johar, Mahesh Bhatt and Priyanka Chopra took the side of Phantom Films in this battle, CBFC passed the film with “A” certification and 13 cuts.

That was when Phantom Films moved the Bombay High Court which passed the verdict on June 13 that only one scene should be cut and a disclaimer included.

The court, in its judgment, said the Indian audience is mature enough to decide what worked for them and what did not. In the modern age if a film did not have any good content, it would not work, it said.

After the verdict, Udta Punjab is likely to be released on its scheduled release date of June 17. It happens to be the first Indian film that was almost butchered with 89 cuts but virtually survived unscathed with just one.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Udta Punjab also gets an unprecedented opening.

Why so many cuts?

Apparently, Nihalani felt that the cuss words needed to be removed along with the scenes that show people pushing drugs through injections and another scene where the protagonist urinates in public (that scene has been finally cut).

Even if we accept that cuss words could be gross, what took the cake was the CBFC’s reservations about using any place, name or placard remotely connected to Punjab or any reference to the elections scheduled in Punjab next year.

Apparently, they felt the film showed the state in bad light because its focus was drug menace in the state.

When Nihalani, who himself has produced and directed plenty of potboilers in his career, became the chairman of CBFC in January 2015, he passed on stricter guidelines for usage of cuss words and shortened the kissing scene in the James Bond movie Spectre.

But many say that going after Udta Punjab was politically motivated and in doing so, he was subscribing to the present government’s agenda of sanitizing Indian creativity.

Freedom of expression

An issue that has been plaguing the Indian film industry is censorship. Way back in 1973, films like Garm Hawa ran into trouble with the Censor Board because it dealt with religious issues and India’s Partition, another volatile issue.

Films like Andhi, Fire, Bandit Queen and Amu also had to deal with censorship issues.

In recent times, most Hindi films are trying to have realistic content and move away from the running-around-the trees image that has been so typical of Bollywood.

The judges at Bombay High Court rightly said that ceremonies like marriage have some vulgar practices nowadays and if a filmmaker wants to portray this evil, how does he do it without showing the evil itself?

The verdict on Udta Punjab could mean a great victory for Bollywood but the stumbling block remains the certification, the main role of the CBFC, as reinforced by Bombay High Court.

Veteran filmmaker Shyam Bengal had been asked to set up a committee to revamp the Censor Board because it continues to have archaic views about the audience when Indian films are becoming more realistic.

The committee submitted its report in April this year saying there could be more classification in certification and that way it could be ensured scenes are not snipped. A/C certification meaning adult with caution would allow films with excessive adult content to be released but that could not be done in multiplexes or halls located next to residential areas.

While Benegal expressed his happiness about the court verdict, the happiest person probably was producer Anurag Kashyap himself who had been battling the Censor Board for long. His debut film Paanch and later Black Friday had a tough time getting certifications and despite finally getting the certification, Paanch was never released.

Freedom of expression in Indian films is a complicated area. Film blogger Soumyadipta Banerjee wrote that even if scenes are not cut, it is the U certification that is most coveted by producers because it opens up all horizons from getting the right multiplexes to channel and online deals.

Soumyadipta wrote: “A film starts getting restricted if it gets an ‘Adult’ (A) certificate. There are a lot of television channels (most of the big ones actually) who generally don’t buy adult content. Even the multiplexes (again a lot of them) restrict number of screens to an adult film and would rather prefer a family film playing at their theatres instead. There are times when even a U/A film (which certified for all barring a few scenes) doesn’t get the required platform it truly deserves.”

Maybe winning the court is the first step towards addressing these issues related to freedom of expression. There is much happiness at Phantom Films as they gear up for the grand release of Udta Punjab.

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com

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