On a cutting spree

Print edition : July 08, 2016

"Udta Punjab" director Abhishek Chaubey, Alia Bhatt, Shahid Kapoor, Daljit Dosanjh, and producer Anuraj Kashyap at a press conference in Mumbai on June 14. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Pahlaj Nihalani, Chairman, CBFC. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Shubhradeep Chakravorty, document film-maker. His film on the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 did not get a CBFC certificate. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The fuss over Udta Punjab is in keeping with the CBFC’s track record in recent years.

Hours after the Bombay High Court cleared Abhishek Chaubey’s much-in-the-news Udta Punjab with a single cut, instead of the 89 cuts mooted by the Central Board of Film Certification’s (CBFC) revision committee, CBFC Chairman Pahlaj Nihalani said: “I had put in place a proper system. We were doing what was expected of us—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 vulgarity, obscenity in their movies. It is an open world for them.” He was clearly referring to the court reminding the CBFC that its job was to certify films for exhibition and not censor them.

Given his track record as a producer himself, his words evoked guffaws and sarcasm. The talented actor Swara Bhaskar, never short of an opinion or the guts to express it, reminded him through an open letter of his own film Aankhein, which had a cheeky Govinda assessing the “assets” of the heroine Shilpa Shirodkar in the popular song “Angna mein baba, dware pe maa”. She called Nihalani “a man with an angelic sense of propriety” for insisting on removing the word “rakhail” from her own film Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo, directed by Sooraj Barjatya.

Nihalani made most of his films in the 1980s and the 1990s, decades marked by films of mediocrity and vulgarity. Even by the standards of those decades, Nihalani has much to be embarrassed about beyond A a nkhein. He produced Andaz, the worst of the films with that name. Its songs caused a social outrage at the time and they leave many squirming even today. With words like “Ye hai maal gaadi, dhakka laga” (This is a goods wagon, give it a shove) and “Khada hai, khada hai” (It’s up, it’s up), the film did not discomfit only prudes.

The election video he made ahead of the 2014 general election on Narendra Modi, then the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, was titled Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi. Small wonder that he was happy to call himself a “chamcha” (dedicated fan) of Modi during his spat with the Udta Punjab producers and alleged that Udta Punjab was financed by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Most film-makers came out in support of Anurag Kashyap, who has produced Udta Punjab. The irrepressible Mahesh Bhatt, Karan Johar, Farhan Akhtar and Ramgopal Varma, all spoke out in favour of the film in particular and film-makers’ creative licence in general. But the fuss about Udta Punjab is not an isolated instance. It is merely one of the more visible attempts at muzzling free expression.

Other films have also suffered because Nihalani and company want to decide what is fit to be seen and what is not. Film-makers are treated like schoolchildren, with the CBFC chief playing the role of the principal who decides whether they can make the kind of films they want to make. En Dino Muzaffarnagar, a documentary film by Shubhradeep Chakravorty and Meera Chaudhary was denied a certificate for exhibition. The film dealt with the communal riots in western Uttar Pradesh in 2013. In April this year, Nihalani explained the CBFC’s decision: “The Home Ministry has opined that the film is highly provocative and instigates communal disharmony. Keeping in view the input received from the Home Ministry, I have reviewed the film and found that the film indeed has the potential to create communal disharmony. CBFC has decided not to issue a certificate to the film.”

He claimed that the film was “found to be highly critical of one group and certain individuals. The film tries to defame a group of individuals and presents an ex parte view of rights.” His words were in consonance with what the Home Ministry advised the CBFC to do because it allegedly showed the BJP leaders Amit Shah and Sanjiv Baliyan and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leader Indresh Kumar in a poor light.

The film had shown the Muzaffarnagar riots as having been planned with an eye on consolidating Hindu votes during the general election and was not a spontaneous bout of violence between religious communities. Meera Chaudhary says that the CBFC panel had at first suggested only three minor cuts. The film would have been passed with those cuts, but that is when Nihalani is said to have stepped in.

Though snatches of the film are available online, the film will probably have to wait a long time before it can be released. It reminds one of Final Solution(2004), Rakesh Sharma’s widely acclaimed film that took the lid off of the 2002 Gujarat violence and blamed BJP leaders for it. The film was denied a certificate by the CBFC, then led by Anupam Kher. Rakesh Sharma said: “The CBFC didn’t order any cuts but refused to altogether certify Final Solution, in effect banning it. Their formal ruling itself was laughable.” The CBFC in its ruling had said: “The film promotes communal disharmony among Hindu and Muslim groups and presents the picture of Gujarat riots in a way that it may arouse the communal feelings and clashes among Hindu [and] Muslim groups. It attacks on the basic concept of our Republic i.e. National Integrity and Unity. Certain dialogues involve defamation of individuals or body of individuals. Entire picturisation is highly provocative and may trigger off unrest and communal violence. State security is jeopardised and public order is endangered if this film is shown. It violates guidelines 2(xiii), 2(xiv), 2(xvii) and 3(i). When it is judged in its entirety from the point of view of its overall impact, it is not advisable to be exhibited. Hence refused under Section 5(b) 1 of the Cinematograph Act, 1952.”

Following widespread protests from civil society, the CBFC not just cleared the film without a single cut, but Kher himself called it “a testament of truth”.

Incidentally, Nihalani also cited the potential threat to public order, state security and national integrity to justify his decision to not certify Udta Punjab. Rakesh Sharma said: “It doesn’t surprise me that many of Mr Nihalani’s utterances invoke the same holy cows—state security, public order, national integrity and unity, etc—perhaps as both Kher and Nihalani share the same ideology as well as a sense of bhakti towards Prime Minister Modi, as was obvious in Kher’s ‘intolerance’ march last year!”

Rakesh Sharma feels the need to take a proper look at the powers of the CBFC so that uniform yardsticks may be applied to all films. “We need the higher courts to interpret the scope of the CBFC’s power under the Cinematograph Act and the certification rules and issue precedent-making and binding directions to the CBFC. Mr Nihalani and the CBFC had very clearly overstepped their mandate. Their actions were clearly politically motivated. To my mind, this was a case fit enough to not just define the CBFC’s power by issuing formal guidelines that would benefit in the future all film-makers whose films are arbitrarily banned, maimed or mutilated. I wish the court had formally reprimanded Mr Nihalani, passed strictures and perhaps even taken punitive action to discourage future mala fide and whimsical actions.” He questioned the single cut ordered by the court but welcomed the court’s observation that the film and its impact must be viewed in its entirety rather than through individual shots, scenes and specific words.

The national award-wining director Hansal Mehta also found himself at the receiving end of the CBFC’s moral policing. His film Aligarh, based on the story of the Aligarh Muslim University professor Ramchandra Siras, who was allegedly caught having paid sex with a rickshaw-puller, went through the scissors and got an Adults Only certificate. Mehta regrets accepting the cuts he was advised to carry out. Mehta, who had got public applause for his film Shahid, said on an earlier occasion that the Censor Board behaved like members of a homophobic society. “The Censor Board behaved exactly like those people who suspended Professor Siras,” he said.

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