To interpret the Central Board of Film Certification's diktat against Udta Punjab as an attempt to curb artistic freedom would be to miss the point altogether. It may be tempting for some to paint India as North Korea, as producer Anurag Kashyap has already done, but the fact is that his movie has met the fate of Santa Banta jokes in becoming a victim of the 2017 Assembly elections in Punjab. If sharing jokes was as easy as banning movies and had Arvind Kejriwal not had to rely on courts to do so, the pranks, too, by now would've stopped.
This is not to provide cover for CBFC chief Pahalaj Nihalani who keeps pushing the boundaries of absurdity with every decision. From clipping James Bond's kisses, removing references to homosexuality to banning 'cuss' words like Bombay from our films, the sanskari uncle has been admirably shouldering the sacred burden of keeping secure the nation's chastity belt. Nihalani may be the frontrunner for Limca Book Of Records For Serial Ludicrousness but in Udta Punjab's case, he appears to be a bit-part player.
Consider the nature of the censor board diktat. Though there are conflicting reports about whether the title can retain the word 'Punjab', the CBFC seemingly wants the makers of the film to drop all references to real places, politics and upcoming state elections from the dialogues in order to get certification.
The Hindu quoted a CBFC member as saying: "The screening for the Revising Committee (led by Pahalani) took place on Friday and it did not recommend that the title be changed. Certain objectionable scenes and words have been asked to be removed. Now it’s up to the producers to accept it or not."
The CBFC's 'Revising Committee' which had a second look at the film after Kashyap knocked on Union information and broadcasting ministry's door, apparently found the movie to be "full of abuses."
This is a wild goose. The real reason behind the astonishingly bad decision by even CBFC's 'exalted' standards seems to be the fact that the movie has substance abuse as its central motif and places it in the context of a state which is grappling with a festering drug problem and is due for polls in nine months.
It doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out what may have led to this decision though the Sukhbir Singh Badal-led Shiromani Akali Dal, an ally of the NDA government, has claimed that it has no control over releasing of movies while clarifying in the same breath that any attempts of "defaming Punjab" will be resisted.
"We have got no control over such decisions. As we said in the past, we will continue to welcome this movie as long as no party or the Punjab community is slammed. If the film is about a societal issue, only then we welcome it," SAD MLA Virsa Singh Valtoha from Amritsar was quoted as saying in Times of India.
It is indeed a sad state of affairs for the ruling SAD which is widely expected to bow out in the upcoming polls. Reports quoting various surveys have pointed out the magnitude of the problem in Punjab where almost 70 percent of its nearly three crore population is affected by substance abuse. The crisis is more acute in the rural areas.
Amid such a scenario, if a movie featuring popular actors such as Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor and under the banner and reach of Ekta Kapoor's Balaji Telefilms and Kashyap's Phantom Films focuses on the worst-kept secret of Punjab, it may make drug abuse the talking point of the elections which the ruling coalition desperately wants to avoid.
However, the sad (pun unintended) state of India's vote bank politics is such that though the SAD and BJP are in the dock over this issue, the AAP or the Congress are hardly in a position to claim a seat on the moral high horse.
The AAP chief, as has already been mentioned, recently signed a hard copy (no less) of a petition seeking the banning of Santa Banta jokes which has long been a part of Indian tradition of laughing at ourselves. And it’s not as if only a particular community is the butt of all ridicule. The stereotypical Bong who cannot look beyond his fish and rosogolla is as infamous as the penny-wise Marwari, the dhokla-wolving Gujarati or the Gulf-bound Mallu.
By signing the petition, Kejriwal was effectively blowing the same dog whistle that the MNS or Shiv Sena try to blow when they claim to speak for Marathi manoos while whipping the butt of comedians.
Rajya Sabha MP and former state Congress chief Partap Bajwa has said his party will " take this issue to Parliament and not allow this move."
The gentleman needs to be reminded that Akali Dal is merely following the trail blazed by the Congress party which over the years had banned a number of movies which it found politically too inconvenient. Be it Punjabi film Kaum De Heere, which apparently " glorifies the assassins of Indira Gandhi" and still lies banned with even BJP acting in collusion, or Aandhi (1975) the Gulzar-directed film which Indira Gandhi found too close for comfort. Or Kissa Kursi Ka (1977), which was released only after a regime change because the Congress government thought it was a spoof of the Emergency. Prints and copies of the film were burned by party supporters.
Be that as it may, instead of getting angry with Nihalani, Kashyap should actually send him a box of sweets. The CBFC chief just ensured that Udta Punjab will be a grand success.