Punjab does not have a drug problem. Corrupt officials and politicians in the state do not provide protection to the narcotics trade. The existence of de-addiction centres is as mythical as studies indicating high usage of drugs and alcohol, especially by young people.

Thus Abhishek Chaubey’s upcoming movie Udta Punjab, which explores drug use in the state through a cross-section of characters, is not merely a work of fiction based on a very real set of events. It is, as per the Central Board of Film Certification, an incendiary and defamatory work that misrepresents reality and so must be buried at the bottom of the sea.

Reports suggesting that the CBFC wanted the word "Punjab" to be removed from the title of the July 17 release were inaccurate, but the alleged list of 89 cuts – which has not been officially communicated to producers Phantom Films and Balaji Telefilms – essentially amount to just that. The CBFC reportedly wants all references to the state, its towns and cities, and elections to be dropped. Characters may bear every mark of being Punjabi, but cannot be identified as such. They could well be from La-La Land, which is where the CBFC will eventually send filmmakers if the censors extend this attitude to other movies with political and social themes.

The trailer of ‘Udta Punjab’.

Only political pressure from the Centre can explain the skittishness with which the CBFC has treated Udta Punjab, which set in the state ruled (or misruled, by most accounts) by the Shiromani Akali Dal party led by the Badal clan in a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The alliance will face a crucial Assembly election in 2017, and it appears that Udta Punjab is exposing an open secret. If a mere movie can pose such a grave threat to possible re-election, it’s anybody guess what the anti-incumbency sentiment on the ground is like.

Several Akali leaders have denounced the movie based on their viewing of the trailer and reading initial interviews: they have claimed that attempts are being made to “defame Punjab” and that drug abuse is a nationwide problem. The comments seem to have worked most effectively as a dog whistle for the CBFC’s examining committee.

Running with scissors

Udta Punjab was submitted for certification in May. It was refused a certificate due to the purported sensitivity of its material. Since a movie cannot be released in theatres without a censor certificate, the producers knocked on the next available door: the revising committee. This group, which included the CBFC’s controversial chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani, was even less welcoming.

The Badals have not been named in Udta Punjab, said an person familiar with the production who asked to remain unidentified. Phantom Films and Balaji Telefilms are now moving the Bombay High Court in order to get an official list of the cuts so that they can move the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, which is the third level of appeal.

What’s next? Movies about drought in Maharashtra or honour killings in Haryana that cannot explicitly name their locations? The suppression of any thought deemed to be “anti” and not “pro”? Are filmmakers now supposed to master the art of allegory and come up with inventive ways to merely allude to the pressing problems of our times?

If the CBFC has its way with Udta Punjab, we will be turning back the clock on the welcome strand of realism that has animated Hindi films of late and encouraged filmmakers to explore the times we live in rather than the fantasy worlds we are encouraged to escape to.

The CBFC’s willingness to let itself be used as a pawn has further diminished its already poor image. Ever since Pahlaj Nihalani took charge of the censor board in January 2015, he has worked consistently towards undermining freedom of expression. He has released a list of swear words that may not be used on screen and stood by as his examiners have mutilated even Adults-only films. The CBFC has always been deeply prudish and censorious, curtailing the length of kisses (typically by 50%). (Each week, Scroll lists these excisions in its "What the censors cut" feature.) Vigilance over sex and violence has been extended over the years to the vague and fundamentally indefinable area of defamation.

Under the guise of protecting individuals, caste and religious groups, institutions and the nation itself from real and imagined cinematic threats, the CBFC has tightened the noose over filmmakers. Even an innocuous mispronunciation of Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi’s name by award-winning filmmaker Josy Joseph in the film Serendipity Cinema has not gone unnoticed. It does not matter to the censor board that the author herself has not been offended.

Every ruling party has manipulated the functioning of the CBFC, and every ruling party has feebly attempted to placate critics by appointing committees to suggest reforms. The previous Congress Party-led government did not have the courage to accept the recommendations of the Justice Mukul Mudgal committee report, which was completed in 2013. The committee suggested, among other things, that the CBFC’s role be restricted to certification rather than censorship – rather than lecturing filmmakers on how long characters should kiss and what they could say and not say, the CBFC needed to respect the intelligence of the cinema-going public.

The BJP-led government, reacting to criticism within and outside the film industry on Nihalani’s rampaging ways, also named its own committee, headed by eminent filmmaker Shyam Benegal. The committee’s pointers echo many of those voiced by the previous group, but the Centre has not indicated if it will accept or implement its welcome recommendations.

No government has ever shown any willingness to scale down the CBFC’s powers over filmmakers or resist tinkering with the board’s mandate to peddle its own agenda. The CBFC’s sensitivity has only increased under a government that is in permanent election mode.

Thin skin is in, and anything and everything that can upset a handful of powerful people is enough to block creative expression. Rather than using his discretionary powers as CBFC chairperson to side with filmmakers, Nihalani has sent out clear signals through his public statements that he supports censorship. If Arun Jaitley, whose Information and Broadcasting Ministry controls the CBFC, truly believes in his own statement that artistic creativity and freedom should not be curtailed by certification, it’s time he put his money where his mouth is.