By clearing Udta Punjab with a single cut on Monday, the Bombay High Court has called the Central Board of Film Certification’s bluff and allowed the release of the film. If all proceeds as planned, audiences will on Friday get to see for themselves the scenes that prompted the CBFC’s examining committee to reject the film outright, and its revising committee to order up to 89 deletions and changes.
This victory isn't without a price. In effect, the court has also played censor: it has asked for a scene of a character urinating to be excised. It isn’t clear why a character cannot urinate in a movie. It has also asked for one of the film's disclaimers to be modified. However, that’s a battle for another day.
Udta Punjab is a high-profile narcotics drama set in in the northern state. It features A-listers Kareena Kapoor Khan, Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt and Punjabi mega-star Diljith Dosanjh. The CBFC wanted all references to Punjab and elections to be deleted. The state goes to the polls next year.
By trying to ground Udta Punjab, the CBFC has managed to gift the Balaji Productions and Phantom Films co-production the kind of publicity that money can’t buy. The early trailers and the songs from the soundtrack were well received when they were released some weeks ago, but CBFC chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani has now ensured an immense level of curiosity about how the film explores the drug trade in Punjab and what it says about corruption in the state.
With this court order, Nihalani might have egg on his face. But he continues to have the blessings of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which oversees the CBFC. Apart from making vague remarks about the need to have to board move from playing to role of a censor to merely issuing content-appropriate certification, the ministry has neither upbraided Nihalani for trying to crush the movie’s prospects, nor has it suggested that it will replace him.
This despite the fact that Nihalani has behaved like no other CBFC chairperson before him. He has been openly partisan on the issue: he has bragged about his distaste for Anurag Kashyap, one of Udta Punjab’s producers and a vociferous critic of the board, and has spoken about increasing censorship requirements.
However, the High Court victory is a minor one whose fruits can be enjoyed only by the people associated with Udta Punjab rather than the entire film industry. Not many filmmakers can afford to go to court and rally Bollywood heavyweights behind their cause. For every filmmaker who calls a press conference or uses social networking to highlight the CBFC’s harassment, there are countless others who quietly submit to the censor board’s whims.
The film industry should get ready for another censorship battle, because one is already looming: on Monday, the Punjab and Haryana High Court, acting on a petition by an advocate, asked for a viewing to determine whether the movie should be banned if it denigrates the fair name of Punjab. The next hearing will be on Thursday.