The Udta Punjab controversy had a happy end after all. The film released with minimal cuts, despite the Censor Board’s full-throttle attempt to block and suffocate the movie. The film earned good reviews and did well at the box office. Most important, it brought national attention to the social issue it dealt with — the drug problem in Punjab. Few Hindi commercial films achieve all this. Udta Punjab will always remain a special film. After this happy resolution, it is tempting to forget about the issue of extreme, unfair censorship in films and move on.
But then we would be doing our much-loved cinema and our own freedom of expression a huge disservice. Already, the film industry faces unfair, outdated and inexplicable policies. Entertainment tax is a major sore point. In an era of non-stop content on mobile phones, such a selective tax only hampers industry competitiveness. Rampant piracy is another concern. For some reason, our society and government do not find piracy immoral. If a carpenter makes a table out of wood and someone steals it, would that be allowed? So why is it okay for the effort of 300 people who work on a film to be stolen as pirated content? It is indeed strange that the government-appointed Censor Board seeks to prevent films that are ‘immoral for society’, but the same society doesn’t find piracy immoral.
This is not a rant to cure the industry of all its ills, but hobbling it only benefits other content creators, including Hollywood. If the Indian elite finds Hollywood content to be of a higher standard, do note that unfair policies make our films uncompetitive, which in turn means there is not enough recovery to pay for the right talent, technology or resources.
Adding to all these problems is a draconian Censor Board. The Cinematograph Act of 1952 has language that allows almost any film to be banned in the name of ‘morality’. Of course, it doesn’t define the exact moral standard we are talking about. Hence, we are at the mercy of the Censor Board, particularly the chairman, and what they deem immoral. Enter Nihalaniji, a self-styled sanskaari, Modi chamcha (his own words) and political climber. His crass and blatant attempts to be liked by the BJP leadership are so bad, they cause more harm to the BJP than anything else. He once inserted a self-produced, unasked for, tacky, North Korea-style Modi propaganda tribute in the interval of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. As Censor Board chief, he has tried to be as sanskaari as he can ever be, under the assumption that the BJP loves ‘sanskaari’ and hates long French kisses. Who knows, maybe one day Modiji will notice?
All this has only ended up making the BJP look bad. For this reason alone Pahlaj Nihalani should be fired. There are other reasons too. Such as calling himself a proud Modi chamcha at the same press interview where he spoke on Udta Punjab. Not only did he drag the PM into the controversy, but he also admitted his own political bias, something a censor chief isn’t supposed to have. To go after Udta Punjab because its narrative didn’t suit the current Punjab government (a BJP ally) is enough reason to get the boot. Considering the lone ranger Nihalani is, it is hard to say if he had instructions from the top to block the film or did so on his own accord.
If I can write an article about drug addiction in Punjab, if a news channel can show a documentary on the issue, why can’t a filmmaker do it too? Aren’t films merely another form of expression? The film could even have a distorted view of a social problem, just as an article or documentary can. In a country with free speech, there is absolutely no basis to ban it. No wonder the courts took only a day to decide that Nihalani’s attempts to stall Udta Punjab were baseless. Lucky save for the makers indeed. Had the film been stalled or delayed, they could have gone bankrupt. The efforts of hundreds of people over two years would have gone waste. Investors would have shied away from the film industry. India would be seen as a republic with little individual freedom. All this due to Nihalaniji. Yet, he sits there in office, inept, outdated, incompetent and shameless. Why?
The ultimate solution is to fix the Cinematograph Act so the Nihalanis of this world can’t abuse it. Meanwhile, the government should immediately appoint a better censor chief who has the right intent and competence to do the job. It is time for Nihalani to pack up.