NEW DELHI // India’s film certification board overreached its mandate in ordering extensive cuts to a new film about drug addiction in Punjab state, the Bombay High Court said yesterday.
The government-appointed Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is required only to rate films according to the audiences for which they are appropriate, but with Udta Punjab – "Punjab Flying High" – it had acted as a censor, the court said.
The board can refuse certification outright only to films that it deems a threat to national security, or that contain excessive nudity, profanity or violence. Otherwise it can only suggest cuts for films to achieve a certain rating.
For Udta Punjab, the suggested cuts for an "adults only" rating were excessive, and the board had assumed the role of a moral censor, the court said.
There is no mention of the word “censor” in the CBFC’s mandate, judges SC Dharmadhikari and Shalini Phansalkar-Joshi said. “The board should use its powers as per the constitution and the supreme court’s directions.”
The court ordered the insertion of a disclaimer about the dangers of drugs and the removal of a scene showing a rock star urinating in front of a crowd, but otherwise allowed the film to be released intact.
The ruling is a blow to the CBFC, which has been seen as increasingly conservative and even regressive during the prime ministership of Narendra Modi. It also marks the climax of a week-long tussle between the board and the makers of Udta Punjab, which is scheduled for release in India on Friday.
The film’s release in the UAE was scheduled for Thursday, but has been postponed indefinitely.
The CBFC says it told the movie’s producers last week that the film would need 13 cuts before it could be released with an A rating – “for adults only”.
The producers say the CBFC actually gave them 13 broad guidelines that would have required cuts in 89 places. These included removal of any references to Punjab and its towns; deleting words such as “election”, “party”, and “parliament”; and including a disclaimer stating that the film was a work of fiction and that the government was working hard to combat the drug menace in Punjab.
Pahlaj Nihalani, the CBFC chairman, said last week that by depicting the drug problem in Punjab, the film would defame and offend the sentiments of the state. He also said one of the producers, Anurag Kashyap, “has taken money from the Aam Aadmi Party to show Punjab in a bad light”.
The Aam Aadmi Party plans to challenge Punjab’s ruling coalition between Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal in state elections next February.
Mr Nihalani denied that the CBFC was acting under political pressure. But when asked by the NDTV news channel if he was, as his critics allege, a “chamcha” – sycophant – of Mr Modi, he said: “Yes, I am a chamcha of Narendra Modi. I am proud to be a Modi chamcha.”
Kashyap, a critically acclaimed director whose film company co-produced Udta Punjab, lashed out at the CBFC's high-handedness.
“I always wondered what it felt like to live in North Korea,” he tweeted on June 7. Then, in Hindi, he added: “Now we don’t even need to catch a plane to find out.”
The next day, Kashyap and his colleagues petitioned the Bombay High Court, arguing that the CBFC's changes amounted to censorship, and that Udta Punjab reflected the reality of drug abuse.
The court rejected a claim by the CBFC’s lawyers that the film glorified drug abuse. The judges also said that locating the film in the state was not a problem and that the state’s name and its towns could be mentions. “The mere reference of … Punjab [does] not affect the sovereignty and integrity of the country.”
The creative freedoms of artists should allow them to express themselves in the ways they wished, the judges said. “We don’t find anything in the film that shows Punjab in a bad light.”
The court’s decision comes as a setback to Mr Nihalani, who has built a reputation as an interfering official eager to cut films on the assumption that they may offend sensibilities. “Producers should not make controversial movies,” he said soon after being appointed in January last year.
Since then, the CBFC has barred the screening of a film about religious riots that took place in 2013; cut a scene from the James Bond movie Spectre because it featured a long kiss; and instructed several filmmakers to delete even moderate violence, profane language, or sensitive themes.
Apar Gupta, a New Delhi-based lawyer with expertise in technology and media law, said relying on the judiciary to clear movies could be only an ad hoc solution since it would not be realistic for every filmmaker go to court.
"The real problem is the Cinematograph Act, which gives the CBFC these powers," Mr Gupta told The National. "Once it has these powers, the CBFC is always likely to be filled by political appointees with close ideological affiliations to ruling parties."
For such problems to end, the act needs to be done away with, Mr Gupta said. “But only parliament can do that.”
Until then, he said, the courts would not be able to guarantee the film industry a uniform, fair path for movies to reach cinemas.