Udta Punjab will soon be playing at a theatre near you. The happy ending owes itself to Justice SC Dharmadikari of the Bombay High Court, who has basically told the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to take a chill pill. He also reminded the CBFC that its primary duty is to certify and not censor films.
While the judgment has left CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani with a double-anda omelette on his face, this is not exactly an unqualified victory for freedom of expression or film-makers. As Hansal Mehta pointed out on Twitter, not every film-maker has the financial muscle to take the CBFC to court every time it does its job badly (or exceeds its brief as it clearly has in this case). It follows, too, that the number of producers in a risk-averse industry who will stick their necks out for a potentially “controversial” script is going to get smaller and smaller with each such confrontation.
Bringing in the judiciary to certify a film’s inoffensiveness is also a part of the process that treats the Indian cinema audience as children who need to be protected from the (subversive) power of moving images. What if the court had more delicate sensibilities and found that it did not want to hear about anyone’s “andar ka kutta?” Whether it is the CBFC or the court, film-makers are left to the mercy of subjective judgements rather than have the audience decide the fate of their films.
The Cinematograph Act 1952, under which the CBFC operates, inherited a Colonial era suspicion of the masses who may not be mature enough to deal with the rousing images of cinema. As lawyer Gautam Bhatia writes in this superb piece in The Hindu, the problem is not about the individual at the helm as it is about the legal framework through which cinema is viewed. Anurag Kashyap’s run-ins with the board over the years have shown that the CBFC has jumped at the opportunity to play nanny to the Indian cinema audience before.
That is not to say that the Nihalani-led board does not have its unique sanskari baggage. Under it, the emphasis on certification has been overshadowed by an adversarial policing of content — and even his own board members have been upset with its approach.
Nihalani is, after all, the man who has muted cuss words, beeped out the word lesbian and snipped James Bond’s kisses by 50 per cent. For him, the Bombay High Court judgment has been the unkindest cut of them all.