Udta Punjab is not the first film that the >Central Board of Film Certification has sought changes in. And as in several previous instances of censorship, its demand has no rational basis and violates the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression. The plot line of the film is anchored in Punjab’s widespread drug addiction, a problem that has been extensively researched and detailed. It is widely known that drugs are laying waste the people of the State. Ironically, the CBFC wants “Punjab” expunged from the title along with edits so that the drama could be read as taking place anywhere in the country, not specifically in Punjab. Depictions of live issues and events are usually introduced with the caveat that resemblance to real persons is accidental, and it would be logical to assume that this is where the Board should have left it. The reasons for its censorious zeal are not difficult to guess. Assembly elections in Punjab are less than a year away, and the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, which leads a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party, is being cornered most acutely on drug abuse. It is accused not only of failing to check the drug trade, but also of turning its eyes away from the involvement of well-connected individuals. The film’s producer has taken the matter to court, and one must await further legal developments to know the fate of the film. But in his inordinate enthusiasm in talking down Udta Punjab , CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani has only brought the issue of drug consumption in Punjab back into the spotlight.
It is just as well that the matter of certification has been taken to the courts. As film-makers scope the landscape for realistic depictions of immediate issues, they face resistance in the form of CBFC recommendations or outright threats of violence from assorted groups. From Bombay in the Nineties to Vishwaroopam more recently, the right of producers to screen their films is often negotiated politically. There have been many efforts to secure the freedom of expression — for example the G.D. Khosla report in 1969 recommended independent members on the Board, then called the Central Board of Film Censors. “Independence” has remained elusive — and even if full autonomy of the Board is ensured, there is no guaranteeing that the institution would be any less scissor-happy. Perhaps the Shyam Benegal Committee set up early this year by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has offered a more practical solution: the CBFC should only certify a film and its scope should be restricted to categorising the suitability of the film according to the audience group for which it is intended.