The 1952 case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson had film distributor Joseph Burstyn appeal in the United States Supreme Court against the revoking of his license to exhibit the short film The Miracle (originally made as a segment of the Italian film L’Amore). The film’s plot, about a Saint Joseph impregnating a mentally disturbed peasant who believes she’s the Virgin Mary, ignited a moral outrage that saw it described by the censor board as “sacrilegious” and “vile, harmful and blasphemous.”
Burstyn fought the invalidation of his license on the grounds that this “violates the First Amendment as a prior restraint upon freedom of speech and of the press” and that “the term ‘sacrilegious’ is so vague and indefinite as to offend due process”. The Supreme Court saw the censorship of the film as being a “restraint on freedom of speech” and thereby a violation of the First Amendment. This verdict was known as the ‘Miracle Decision’ and went down in history as a landmark decision which marked the weakening of motion picture censorship in the United States.
The recent ruling by the Bombay High Court in favour of the makers of Udta Punjab could prove to be India’s own 'Miracle Decision' and is celebrated by the film fraternity as being a “landmark judgment”.
This is the first time in India’s history that the judiciary has been so vocal in upholding the freedom of expression. Pahlaj Nihalani’s cockamamie objections were rubbished by the court as it suggested that the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) “do not act like a grandmother” and “change as per the times now”.
The High Court went on to say that the Board “cannot stop creative people abruptly as it may discourage them. This will kill creativity. These days filmmakers are brutal, direct and straightforward. One need not treat them harshly just because of this.” On the first day of hearings, the HC had stated that the audience of the film is mature and as such should be allowed to see the film without the 89 cuts that the CBFC was demanding. It also reminded the CBFC that its power is only to certify films for public exhibition and that it had absolutely no authority to censor the content of the films.
By treating the Indian cinema goers as adults, the Bombay High Court has given them much more than a few extra minutes of film; this small gesture grants them the dignity of collective maturity. For far too long Indians have bought tickets to that new ‘controversial’ movie which carries a disclaimer warning that ‘No one below 18 allowed’.
That disclaimer is pointless because, despite the multiplex ascertaining that you are an adult, the movie you see inside will still have no nudity, abusive language or religious criticism lest your feeble mind be corrupted. The CBFC has been acting like the grandmother who keeps reminding every family member that cigarettes are injurious to their health and who pretends that her grandchildren were delivered by a stork.
Last night on The Newshour, film producer Mukesh Bhatt pointed out that an 18 year old can vote and usher in a new government but he won’t be allowed to hear a few cuss words or see a few kisses onscreen. Bhatt also stated that as a 61 year old adult, it is his right to see any film, even if it's an adult film. Actor Mukesh Khanna (who was defending Pahlaj Nihalani) argued that several Indians, like his driver, see these adult movies on their mobile phones and hence these films shouldn’t be produced.
This is a bizarre argument to make because, according to Mr. Khanna, not only are filmmakers responsible for the screening of the film in theatres but also for the piracy of their own film. It’s obvious that content piracy causes them a loss in revenue and that a film’s producer would want to curb it. Also, should directors stop making ground-breaking cinema because Shaktimaan’s driver may be challenged by the films he illegally downloads on his phone? The mind boggles.
Officials like Pahlaj Nihalani, who are drunk on power and political affiliation, need to realize that Indians are not prisoners that need to be observed at all times from a panopticon like the CBFC. The attempt to hide the drug affliction in Punjab by erasing the state’s name from the title of a film is nothing short of misdirection.
I would like to draw Mr. Nihalani’s attention to the film Trainspotting which was released in 1996. This movie dealt with the drug epidemic in Edinburgh, Scotland at the time and showed the city, in what Mr. Nihalani would call, ‘bad light’. Sample a dialogue from the film: “I hate being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the f*****g low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that ever shat into civilization. Some people hate the English but I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand are colonized by wankers”.
Despite such blatant criticism of their country, a general public poll voted Trainspotting the best Scottish film in 2004. This is the kind of self-deprecation that we should allow our artists for only then can they truly have the Freedom Of Expression granted by the constitution.
De gustibus non est disputandum is a Latin maxim that translates as “in matters of taste, there can be no disputes”. It implies that everyone’s opinions are subjective and can’t be right or wrong hence it is pointless to argue over taste; one man’s Citizen Kane is another man’s Shola aur Shabnam.
Partisan politics has ended up giving many Indians a massive chip on their shoulders and created an environment where everyone is waiting to be offended. We live in a country that faces several human rights issues and socio-economic challenges. Cinema shouldn’t just be a weekly fantasy away from this truth but should also help Indians understand the realpolitik of their environment. Reality is multifaceted and shouldn’t just be depicted with the tried-and-tested formula of PG 15 romance and family values.
I applaud the Bombay High Court for taking a stand with the filmmakers of Udta Punjab because this evolution has been long overdue. It is one small step for Indian cinema, one giant leap for the Indian cinephile.