Meenakshi Shedde: Terrified of the truth

The government is terrified of the truth, it would seem. It is fascinating how fate engineered a filmi coincidence to nudge the truth. Last Wednesday, Anurag Kashyap of Phantom Films, which co-produced Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab, held a press conference to protest against the Central Board of Film Certification's (CBFC, Censor Board) revising committee, which had demanded 13 cuts of the film (some say effectively 89), at the time of writing.

Shahid Kapoor in Udta Punjab
Shahid Kapoor in Udta Punjab

This film, originally due to release on June 17, laments how rampant drug abuse has laid waste a good section of Punjab's youth. The cuts demanded include deleting all references to Punjab; the NDA-ruled Punjab goes to polls next year.

As fate would have it, a leading national newspaper published its 'Narco War' investigative series the same day, chronicling more than 14,000 drug-related FIRs filed, over 17,000 arrests and seizures of over 40,000 kg of drugs in Punjab alone in 2014. But, of course, the Censor Board believes Punjab is only a land of doodh-lassi, so no udta allowed ji, only shudh Bharatiya sanskriti. Of course, Indian cinema's war on censorship, and the worldview of films-as-PR, is an old one: Nargis, actress-turned-MP, once accused Satyajit Ray and his Pather Panchali (1955) of "exporting poverty."

The Shyam Benegal committee's recommendations include welcome suggestions — that films be certified, rather than censored, and to add more certification categories. However, they also include Section 5B (1) of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, which states that a film shall not be certified if the Censor Board feels it is "against the interests of (the sovereignty and integrity of India), the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence."

Thus, if the censor board objects to a single scene and refuses to certify a film, imagine the massive graveyard of unreleased films that may well pile up. We know those old chestnuts about decency and morality are purely subjective, offering carte blanche for blackmail of producers, who have crores at stake.

Naturally, the danger of self-censorship is far greater, and more insidious. This came up at a session on Freedom of Speech and Censorship in Indian Cinema that I moderated for the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival in May. Filmmaker-actor Nandita Das reminded us that Fire (tackling a middle-class, lesbian relationship; 1996) and Firaaq (on the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots; 2008), were both released without a single cut, but admitted, "I don't think I could make a Firaaq today."

The CBFC occasionally does show signs of intelligent life, but this often seems AWOL. It demanded that a scene in Aligarh — where Manoj Bajpayee nods off in court — be cut, but promotes Bharatiya sanskriti in films like the Housefull series, whose "teen sanskari betiyan" compete to show off their cleavage, and one of whose boyfriends woos her with, "Will you be my tawaif?"

As a former member of the Censor Board, I saw that censorship had little to do with the film, and was more a personal power trip for many members. I remember cringing when random members, who seemed never to have read any literature, or have an understanding of cinema, would lecture Ramesh Sippy and Rohan Sippy on filmmaking, when holding court on Bluffmaster!

It was with an "I can bring you to your knees if I want" sneer, knowing that the filmmaker, with a gazillion prints to send out worldwide in three days, was entirely at their mercy. Anyway, pavitra Bharatiya sanskriti is surely in safe hands when the censor board is chaired by Pahlaj Nihalani, producer of over 19 films, including gems like Paap ki Duniya, in which Chunky Pandey woos a woman suggestively, with "Main tera tota…"

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshishedde@gmail.com

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