India: Film survives censor board controversy after court ruling

16 June 2016

udta punjab
Controversial film ‘Udta Punjab’ (‘Flying Punjab’), which depicts drug use in the northern Indian state of Punjab, will be released on 17 June 2016 with only one cut, ruled the Bombay High Court, after it had been embroiled in a fight over censorship in which the national censorship board called for up to 94 cuts to the film, reported BBC on 14 June 2016.

India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), led by controversial chief Pahlaj Nihalani, gave 13 suggestions to the film’s producers, which totalled 94 cuts to the film to comply, and further gave the film an “A” rating, meaning only adults can watch the film, reported Hindustan Times on 9 June 2016.

The film’s producer Anurag Kashyap told the BBC the reason he was given by the CBFC for all the cuts is that “it puts us in a bad light … on the country, and the state, and everything”, but that no specific reason was given, just points of discussion that drug use is a problem in the country. So Kashyap declared that they were “not accepting the cuts” and took the board to court.

In advance of the court proceeding, the CBFC softened its stance and called for a drastically lower 13 cuts.

The court’s decision
Nihalani’s board said the film encouraged drug use and questioned India’s sovereignty, but the court did not see it that way.

“We have read the script in its entirety to see if the film encourages drugs,” the judge said. “We do not find that the film questions the sovereignty or integrity of India by mentioning the names of cities, or referring to a state or by a sign post.”

The court further clarified that the job of Nihalani and the CBFC is to certify films, rather than censor them, and advised that they should not be “over sensitive” in their work and to “not act like a grandmother”.

Supporters of the film called the court’s decision a “landmark ruling”.

Meanwhile, Nihalani welcomed the court’s decision and congratulated the producers on their win, focusing on the democratic values of the country and the rights that its citizens have to appeal any government department and their orders, reported The Times of India on 14 June 2016.

He further emphasised that his decisions were made according to the guidelines of the 1952 Cinematograph Act and based on the file created by the board’s Examining Committee.

The cuts
The massive amount of cuts included removing all references to Punjab and the names of eight cities “from background and dialogue wherever it occurs”, particular words from two songs, 20 offensive words, plus the political words: “election”, “MP”, “party” from the phrase “party worker”, “MLA” and “Parliament”, as well as various scenes depicting drug use and lewd behaviour.

“We cannot take Punjab out of a film like this. The repercussions of it in the future is much stronger,” Kashyap told the BBC. “After that we’ll stop making these films. Anyone can get up and say take the name of my city out. We have to take it out because of this [the cuts]. This will become a precedent. And we can’t let that happen.”

The only cut ordered by Justice SC Dharmadikari to be cut is a scene showing a character urinating in front of a crowd. The judge also ordered a change in the disclaimer for the film. The film’s director Abhishek Chaubey accepted the order and said he would remove the scene and add a disclaimer that “the film was not against any specific state, and did not support drug abuse or the use of swear words”.

The list of the 13 suggestions that amount to 94 cuts.
The list of the 13 suggestions that amount to 94 cuts

Politics playing a part
The current debacle over ‘Udta Punjab’ seems to indicate that the power of politics in Punjab may be playing a part in Nihalani’s CBFC cuts as the region gears up for elections in February 2017.

The New York Times points out that Punjab is governed by the Akali Dal party, which has been accused of being soft on the region’s drug mafia and may not be keen on having audiences be reminded of the rising heroin problem in the region.

Further, Nihalani has publicly accused Kayshap of accepting money from the Aam Aadami party, which is hoping to replace the Akali Dal party come election time. Kayshap has denied the allegations.

The court also weighed in on the political aspect of the board’s suggestions, stating: “It is common ground that in several states, elections will be held in Punjab in 2017. The film is not made keeping in mind elections in Punjab.”

This point is one in which Kayshap is also clear, describing the film-making process to the BBC as a long one, and one that started four to five years ago for ‘Udta Punjab’ when the writing process began. He added that the film was also shot in 2015, and it was focused on the drug problems, not the elections happening years later.

Swirling controversy around CBFC
‘Udta Punjab’ is yet another in a long line of examples that highlights the censoring streak the CBFC has been on ever since Nihalani became chair in January 2015, often drawing criticism and making headlines for its decisions and cuts to foreign and domestic films.

The board’s decisions include cutting scenes of nudity and love-making, violence and profanity, and content that has political or religious subtexts. One particular set of cuts that drew ridicule was the trimming of kissing scenes by half in the last James Bond movie ‘Spectre’ in November 2015.

The controversy has led to critics calling for a reform in how the CBFC operates, and in January 2016 the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting set up a committee, led by veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal, to look into how the CBFC functions with the purpose of recommending changes.

In late April 2016, the committee submitted its report that also includes suggested amendments to the 1952 Cinematograph Act. Among the recommendations are that the CBFC should only act as a film certification body that categorises films according to audience suitability based on age and maturity, and that the rating system should have more categories, reported The Huffington Post on 27 April 2016.

The report also makes recommendations on the conduct of the chairman, saying that they should not be involved in “day-to-day affairs of certification”, but rather act as a “guiding mechanism”, and that members of the Examining Committee should not be appointed by the government.

Down to the wire
Just as the Supreme Court ruling was handed down, the film’s team had to jump yet another hurdle before getting their film on screens by the release date.

A Punjab-based non-profit, Human Rights Awareness, petitioned the court to put a hold on the screening saying that the court cannot decide on cuts made to films and the film puts Punjab in a bad light, reported New Delhi tv station NDTV and newspaper The Hindu on 15 June 2016.

The next day, the Supreme Court declined to hear the plea and recommended they should approach the Punjab and Haryana High Court, newspaper The Hindu reported on the morning of 16 June 2016.

However, that court dismissmed the plea on the evening before the film hits Indian cinemas, reported NDTV on 16 June 2016.

» Read more about the state of censorship in India in Freemuse’s recent article in the  INSIGHT  series:
India: Censors under fire

Photo from official trailer of movie on YouTube


» NDTV – 16 June 2016:
Hours before Udta Punjab releases, Anurag Kashyap’s appeal

» The Hindu – 16 June 2016:
Supreme Court declines to hear NGO plea to halt screening of ‘Udta Punjab’

» Hindustan Times – 15 June 2016:
More trouble for Udta Punjab as NGO moves SC against Bombay HC order

» The Hindu – 15 June 2015:
Punjab-based NGO moves SC to halt screening of ‘Udta Punjab’

» NDTV – 15 June 2016:
Now, NGO moves Supreme Court against Udta Punjab which releases on Friday

» NDTV – 13 June 2016:
Udta Punjab not made with elections in mind: Top 10 observations by court

» The Times of India – 14 June 2016:
Pahlaj Nihalani welcomes HC’s decision on ‘Udta Punjab’

» The Indian Express – 14 June 2016:
Udta Punjab row: Does the film industry need a nanny?

» BBC – 13 June 2016:
Udta Punjab: India court overrules censor cuts to film

» The New York Times – 10 June 2016:
India film censor orders 94 cuts to movie about Punjab’s drug problem

» The Hindu – 9 June 2016:
Court has held that scissors cannot curb creative freedom

» The Indian Express – 9 June 2016:
Chorus in Bollywood: ‘Fraternity has to stand by what’s right’

» Hindustan Times – 9 June 2016:
How censor board made Udta Punjab bleed: Here are all the 94 cuts

» ABC News – 8 June 2016:
Bollywood: Indian film board slammed over move to censor Udta Punjab drug-use film

» Hindustan Times – 7 June 2016:
Udta Punjab gets its wings clipped by censor board

» BBC – 7 June 2016:
Udta Punjab producer Anurag Kashyap ’not accepting cuts’

» The Huffington Post – 27 April 2016:
A breakdown of everything we know about the Shyam Benegal committee’s report to reform the censor board

Related information

» – 30 May 2016:
India: Censors under fire

» – 19 April 2016:
India: Censor board bans own member’s movie

» – 11 March 2016:
India: Two superhero blockbusters suffer cuts

» – 12 February 2016:
India: Frustrations in film industry over censorship

» – 25 November 2015:
India: Board censors James Bond kissing scenes

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