Friday, July 8, 2016

Banned in Punjab

It’s hard to imagine a more nightmarish scenario for Udta Punjab than the one it finds itself in. Last month, the Examining Committee (EC) of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) viewed the film and referred it to the Revising Committee (RC). On Monday, the RC has recommended— allegedly, since no written proof of this has been given to the filmmaker or producers—a whopping 89 cuts to be made in the film. Even more bizarrely, they’ve apparently asked the makers of the film to excise the word ‘Punjab’ wherever it occurs and to remove all references to the state, its cities and its politics.

Since the RC has not issued its recommendations in writing, the makers cannot approach the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, an independent body headed by a retired judge. (“They’ve been delaying giving us that letter for 4 weeks now,” one of the producers told us.) The only options left before the team seem to be to reach an understanding with the CBFC—which seems almost impossible now—or take their case to court (though, as Anurag Kashyap, one of the film’s producers, said on the India Today channel on Tuesday, they need a letter from the CBFC for that as well). In either case, the planned release of 17 June seems highly unlikely.

The issue is complicated by the fact that the film deals with the growing drug culture in Punjab. Addiction and trafficking have been huge problems for the state in recent years, and should be a key issue in next year’s assembly elections. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has campaigned hard on this, with Kumar Vishwas appearing in a music video called "Ek Nasha: Nashe ke Khilaf". The Congress has also vowed to eradicate drugs if they win. A film—especially a big Bollywood film with stars and a risk-taking director and writer—about the problem was always headed for choppy waters.

The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)—which has been in power since 2007 in the state, in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—seems to have had its eye on Udta Punjab from the start. When the trailer hit, SAD MLA Virsa Singh Valtoha remarked that “this film is an outcome of a trend to defame Punjab and its youth”. The party distanced itself somewhat from his comments, with spokesperson Daljit Singh Cheema saying, “It will be wrong to comment hypothetically till we do not watch the exact contents.”

When reports of the film being “banned” (which it technically isn’t) started emerging, Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh said, “The movie has been banned clearly with a guilty conscience.” AAP leader Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi put it in plainer terms, saying: “Since SAD is an alliance partner of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre, the Akalis must have exercised their influence over banning the movie.”

The SAD, for now, is keeping its distance. A senior leader of SAD which heads the government in Punjab said, “The issue is between the censor board and the film-maker, the state government is not even involved in this issue. The censor board has raised questions; it is the competent authority to answer.”

We might never know if any pressure has been exerted, or whether the CBFC is just being its usual overzealous self. What we do know is that the SAD keeps a close watch on films set in Punjab or featuring Punjabis. A number of films have been banned from releasing in the state in recent years. In 2011, it imposed a state-wide ban on Aarakshan, though it revoked this decision a couple of days later. Sadda Haq, a 2013 film on the Khalistan movement, was banned as well. It was eventually released when the Supreme Court overturned the ban.

In 2015, MSG: The Messenger of God, about the controversial cult leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was banned; its sequel that same year, MSG-2 The Messenger, wasn’t explicitly banned, though exhibitors refused to show it in theatres, citing possible law and order problems. In April this year, the screening of Nanak Shah Fakir was suspended for two months, on the grounds that the film on Guru Nanak was inspiring “widespread resentment”. Also in April, the Bollywood film Santa Banta Pvt Ltd was banned for allegedly hurting Sikh sentiments.

It’s not just the ruling party—Punjabi films have raised alarm bells across the political spectrum. In 2003, Hawayein, on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, was banned by the Congress government in Punjab and Delhi. In 2006, it was the turn of The Da Vinci Code, following protests by Punjabi Roman Catholics. Kaum De Heere, a 2014 film on the assassins on Indira Gandhi, was barred from releasing by the Centre after Punjab BJP and Youth Congress leaders wrote to the prime minister objecting to the film’s alleged glorification of its subjects. In addition, groups ranging from the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee to the radical Dal Fakir have also, in the past, raised objections or organised agitations against certain films.

With several political parties circling the issue, there’s a danger of Udta Punjab getting even more deeply mired than it already is. Kashyap tweeted yesterday to this effect, asking “Congress, AAP and other political parties to stay out of my battle” and to not “colour my fight with any political affiliation”. This request fell on deaf years, as right-wing trolls attacked him on Twitter for allegedly being a political pawn. At the end of the day, the fate of the film remained very much in limbo.

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