An Update On Indian Censorship: The Last Straw, And The First Step

A court decision may have signed the CBFC’s death warrant

Back in February, I wrote about the bizarre state of Indian censorship, and how films like Spectre and The Hateful Eight had been treated by the Central Board of Film Certification, also known as “The Indian Censor Board.” What I couldn’t have known, however, was that a mere four months later I’d be writing about actual progress on the matter. Despite it coming in the wake of a huge step back, I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

Since the original article provides historical and cultural context, I’m going to jump right in to the current state of things, and a film called Udta Punjab. It’s coming out this Friday as originally scheduled, and if you’re removed from the political situation, nothing will strike you as out of the ordinary. But while it hasn’t been released to the public yet, it’s already one of the most important films of the year, because it may have united the entire Indian film industry in an effort to oust censorship.

While a parallel certification committee was submitted to the Government last month, nudging the clock of artistic freedom an inch closer to midnight, certain events helped turn that nudge into a push. Now, we wait for the shove. American films continue to see arbitrary cuts – The Conjuring 2 lost a jump scare, The Nice Guys’ porn industry party became a montage – but Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab became the nexus for the myriad of cultural and political issues I brought up last time. I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritties of the censorship process (whether one step or five, a censorship body doesn’t deserve to have its work recognized), but the long and short of it is that 89 cuts or edits were demanded of the distributors in order to rate the film ‘A’ or Adult. That means either complying with the hackjob of a bunch of barely qualified yes-men, or not having the film released at all. After a grueling process of appeal to both the CBFC and the Bombay High Court (part of which involved a goose-chase to get the list of cuts to begin with), it seemed like Udta Punjab wouldn’t make its release date, at least not in its original form. And while that does bring up questions of whether it was being ‘banned’ (apply the Theseus paradox to cinema and you’ll see the complications), just days ago, the High Court came back with its decision: the film will be released this Friday with one cut. Just one.

Look, obviously one is too many for any modern democracy, and it’s especially silly since that scene is in the trailer, but it essentially means the High Court found 88 of the 89 CBFC cuts to be outlandish. That’s a massive number, and if people hadn’t already lost faith in the current certificate system, there’s a good chance this did the trick, because even our own courts don’t believe in it. It’s cause for celebration (while keeping one eye on that 89th cut), although what’s astounding isn’t just the number of cuts, but the nature of them. See for yourselves:

A lot of it has to do with swearing, but surprisingly, moral policing isn’t the most concerning part. That would actually be numbers 1, 2, 6, 8 and 12. You see, Udta Punjab is about the problems of drug abuse in the state of Punjab, and what the CBFC demanded were removals of any references to the name of the state, the name of its cities, and any and all mentions of the Government or local elections. Oh, and cutting out the use of drugs. Plus, that big ol’ disclaimer at the end is all about saying police are doing a great job, and it’s people who are the problem.

When it comes to what’s wrong about how we discuss art, Udta Punjab is the perfect storm.

The ‘official’ reason was that the film would anger people of the state (The CBFC can kiss my Punjabi ass), and while extremist groups would no doubt cause a ruckus, the idea that a film is responsible for lack of law & order as opposed to, you know, the police, is a convenient excuse to keep politics out of cinema as the state gears up for an election. Don’t get me wrong, people getting riled up is a valid concern – the way we as a society deal with being offended is far from healthy – but to hold moral offenders responsible for violence committed against them is reverse-engineering along the lines of fascism.

Here’s where we are right now: this level of demagoguery has resulted in a massive outcry. Filmmakers and lawyers have gathered en masse to discuss the issue on social media and news channels, and as unruly as both sides can be at times, the tidal shift is unquestionable. You can see the pro-censorship people get stuck when asked about their place in the grand scheme of morality, spouting either rehearsed rhetoric, or legal guidelines to which they adhere without rational justification.

If there’s something I’m over-estimating here, it’s the tangibility of the actual progress. There’s been no word on the parallel committee since it was submitted, and as much as the High Court’s decision puts a dent in the current procedure, it doesn’t actually alter it. Not yet. While there’s been no concrete change in policy (some want CBFC head Pahlaj Nihalani gone, others see it as a Hydra situation), Udta Punjab has brought to light the massive hole at the center of India’s political and artistic discourse, i.e. the idea that offense on political or other grounds is license to stifle voices, and (coming back to our good friend 007) the idea that a twenty second kiss with a widow is far too much, but twelve seconds is okay as long as it’s the consensus of a handful of arbiters. These ideas are now broken. Much more than they were before, and about as much as the system that upholds them. The glass is cracked from end to end, and it wont be long before it shatters.

Kudos to director Abhishek Chaubey and producer Anurag Kashyap for speaking out against an oppressive regime, and kudos to prominent filmmakers like Karan Johar, Mahesh Bhatt, Mukesh Bhatt and Imtiaz Ali for tirelessly supporting them. While that one cut is still bothersome, the filmmakers were willing to lose a scene of people getting peed on if it meant a movie about real issues in real places gets to keep its message. Zero cuts would've been ideal, but progress is built on compromise and little victories.

Maybe the next time I write one of these, it’ll be tell you Indian censorship is a thing of the past. Here’s hoping.