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While Bollywood celebrated the Bombay High Court verdict okaying Udta Punjab, it could be seen as a license to show films full of sleaze, smut and violence. An emasculated Censor Board is worse than none at all

By Bikram Vohra


In a world of open-ended audio-visual piracy and the almost comical ease with which you can download the latest films, albeit illegally, any controversies over cinematic censorship are relatively meaningless. The garbage that spews off the 11-inch screen and the laptop is viral. And so endless and invasive that it makes a mockery of censorship per se.

Add to that the deluge of pornography that drenches the younger generation (and others) over the net and you might as well give up the ghost completely and make the Censor Board more an advisory agency than a moral police force which it occasionally assumes.

Come to think of it, that is exactly what it should be. A body whose job it is to certify the category of the film and leave it at that. The word “censor” is anti-“democratic” and presumes that the state wishes to exercise its non-constitutional “right” to think for the people.

IMPERFECT WORLD

In a perfect world, this would be the perfect equation. But it is not a perfect world and once that stone starts rolling down the hill, honesty and transparency are up for grabs. Most of the time, we are imperfect people doing imperfect things for imperfect reasons. The cinema industry is no exception.

CONTENTIOUS CHIEF: Censor Board chief Pahlaj Nihalani
Censor Board chief Pahlaj Nihalani

The milestone judicial decision over Udta Punjab certainly moves the goal posts and sets a precedent for the future. Now, that the Censor Board has been given a celluloid vasectomy, the onus does fall on the filmmaker and the script-writer, on TV and on media in general to ensure that it behaves responsibly and does not go for broke.

Herein lies the rub. Do we have the maturity not to exploit the newly minted freedom allotted to us? What if we go for the lowest common denominator and there is enough evidence in Indian cinema across the board that indicts us for bad taste and visual and spoken ugliness.

TACKY CINEMA

The danger in a misjudgment over this particular film predicated to a hubris by Pahlaj Nihalani is that it can lead to the dam bursting and mediocrity fuelling cheap and tacky cinema in the near future. Just because Udta Punjab does have relatively high values and tells its story with vigor and style does not necessarily mean that its clones will aspire to such heights.

Most of Indian cinema, especially regional, borders on the vulgar. Some of the coarseness that gets the nod from the Censor Board makes one wonder what is the yardstick. The chairman speaks of guidelines. What prisms are employed to assess these is not listed. This restoration of the film does encourage the lurking fear that it could be seen as permission to do dozens of Udta Punjabs on a budget and in all languages. What we are then looking at is gratuitous violence and sex spiraling to obscenity under the guise of “free expression” in an effort to serve jaded appetites and make instant money.

 If Nihalani and his band have done Indian creativity a disservice, it is that they have actually ensured a dropping of standards in future by scything a reasonably well-made and relevant film. If they had honored it, the film would have done what it intended to…focus attention on a major issue in Punjab…no more, no less. And it would have run its course.

It should never have become a political pawn or been given such dimensions of grandeur.

CONTENTIOUS CHIEF: Poster of Daddy
A poster of Daddy, a film on alcohol abuse

NEW, UGLY ERA?

Now, that the genie is out of the bottle, it is not going back. Brace yourself for the ugly era of Indian cinema where all will be laid bare. Subjects like pedophilia, rape of minors, child trafficking, sexual deviations will be exploited and packaged for the public because, after all, aren’t they as valid as narcotics doing the dirty in Punjab?

And what if these films titillate when they should teach, what if the large percentage of them is gross when they should be graceful and sensitive in dealing with such issues? After all, sleaze, smut and violence are now going to be given a free pass and the CBFC will let the films slip through their net because the brouhaha is not worth it. An emasculated CBFC is worse than none at all.

The subtlety of this unpleasant by-product of the legal fiat is lost on most people because they fail to understand that the Udta Punjab restoration could be interpreted as a license to make bad films in the future and exploit the unspeakable for commercial gain. The excitement in the movie industry is palpable. The ogre has been slain.

Contentious Chief:Ek Duje Ke Liye
A still from Ek Duje Ke Liye, based on inter-caste love

CBFC FAILS

The Bombay High Court decision should never have happened because the CBFC should have appreciated good cinema, regardless of the harshness of the storyline and allowed it to thrive. By throttling it and giving it a political overtone, the Censor Board failed in its duty to be the custodian of sincere art. You don’t have to like a film or dislike it for it to be relevant and meaningful.

SEIZING THE STORY:No One Killed Jessica
A poster of No One Killed Jessica

Cinema is a two-sided coin. It opens eyes, highlights troubling issues, educates, focuses attention and writes history, bringing the past alive again. It is also deceitful, fleeting, nebulous, clever, manipulative and rewrites history to suit its maker and its audience. As a result of all these contradictions, it largely falls under the canopy of entertainment. How much of an impact it makes is a question whose answer is still up for grabs.

SEIZING THE STORY:A poster of My Brother Nikhil
A poster of My Brother Nikhil

The Godfather series did not shut the mafia down in the US. A slew of war films, underscoring the futility of war did not end foe versus foe. In the past 50 years, there have been 15 days of peace. Go figure. Films on genocide did not sheath the killer’s knife. The Boko Haram cadres are not impressed by Beasts of No Nation and still recruit child soldiers.

Crime shows by the dozen did not impact on the criminal community. On the contrary, the hi-tech feed into scripts and the hard research that goes into non-fiction blurs the line between imagination and reality and often gives useful data and information to anti-social elements. By that token, Udta Punjab will not end the drug stranglehold in Punjab.

SEIZING THE STORY : A still from The Godfather
A still from The Godfather

SOCIETAL CHANGE?

Taare Zameen Par underscored the plight of children with special needs but how much changed in the public? When Daddy was made about alcoholism (a common feature in nearly every family unit) two decades ago, did it change things? Not really. I watched Peepli with shudders of sadness. But collectively, how much difference did it make to the plight of farmers or their suicide rate? Ek Duuje ke Liye did not eradicate caste bias. On the contrary, cinema sometimes unwittingly emphasizes ills and worsens them.

Caste and religious divides still flourish and we have more aggressive expressions now than we did then. My Brother Nikhil did not repeal Article 377 which criminalizes the LGBT brigade. No One Killed Jessica provided a Page 3 glimpse into the uptown world but justice was not fast-tracked. Rang De Basanti set the frustration of Indian youth to music and may well have impacted negatively on student movements, which was clearly not the aim.

Take Chak De. India got into the finals of the Champion’s Trophy hockey in London recently and India did not watch…so much for the national sport. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was inspirational but no athletics program came out of it.

MORE DOCU-FICTION

That said, in some tangible fashion, cinema verite (veracity) does open a window and bring to the fore dirt we would rather keep under the carpet. It is a start and done with good intent, will pry a window open. The way to go is docu-fiction. Unfortunately, short films and documentaries are not a seller in India and get no broad-based audiences.

When the judiciary restored Udta Punjab to its original robustness, it might have been well-advised to add a few codicils. The most important of these would have been to state unequivocally that Udta Punjab is not a free pass to the cinema industry nor a green card for its more salacious and crude productions. Don’t engage in premature celebrations.

A poster of Taare Zameen Par, a sensitive portrayal of learning difficulties .
A poster of Taare Zameen Par, a sensitive portrayal of learning difficulties 

It could also have considered the add-on of a short documentary film on a similar subject in the halls that exhibit a particularly themed movie as part of a new awareness. That would add authenticity and muscle to the feature film. For example, the much-maligned JNU made Substance Abuse and Pocket films made Withdrawal. These would be hardly 15 minutes extra but if made mandatory along with the main film when the subjects coincide….that would have given a welcome credibility to the Udta Punjab drama.

REEL REALISM: A still from Peepli Live that took up the subject of farmer suicides.
A still from Peepli Live that took up the subject of farmer suicides

 Till then, the “victory” that the judgment signifies to Bollywood and its regional partners is only limited to separating the arts from the state and removing the political overtones because it does not suit a party in power. To read more into it is to make Pandora’s Box look like gold dust.

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