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Udta Punjab: why the censors are treading on thin constitutional ground

Saurav Datta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

- Cassius in Julius Caesar

On 13 June, the Bombay High Court is set to give its decision in the case of the censorship kerfuffle surrounding the film Udta Punjab, which is getting mired in political conspiracies and controversies. But as the Shakespearean Cassius notes, the root cause is not Censor Board chief Pahlaj Nihalani taking a lawn mover to the reel - directing 94 cuts, eventually settling on 89 - it's the laws and regulations that accord the censors such untrammeled powers.

Also read: Udta Punjab: Bollywood takes on Modi govt and "chamcha" Pahlaj Nihalani

And the fact that filmmakers, in general, have not really challenged the government's blanket power, sanctioned by the law, to curb freedom of expression.

Shyam Benegal, a filmmaker of repute appointed to overhaul the censorship laws, has remained non-committal, stating that he might speak only after the Film Certificate Appellate Tribunal Announces its decision on the movie.

Cruel cut

All the cuts ordered by the censors are now available in the public domain, and they range from the inane to the banal.

Also read: How the Badals got themselves into a fix over Udta Punjab

The film is based on rampant drug consumption in Punjab, for which the state government is considerably responsible, but the censors don't want the public to know this. As is evident from the list, besides whitewashing the use of expletives, the censors have tried to absolve the Punjab regime from any responsibility for the menace.

This when The Cinematograph Act, 1952 clearly states that a "film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, the film or any part of it is against the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence."

Also read: Udta Punjab censorship: politics, not expletives, behind the move

But how is the cinematic exploration of drug addiction, a disease, an affront to morality, one might wonder? Or, is it just that the Censor Board is trying to veil reality?

Bare truth

A 2013 study conducted by the Drug Dependence Treatment Centre at AIIMS disclosed that:

  • 1.23 lakh people in Punjab were addicted to heroin

  • 2.3 lakh were dependent on opium and related narcotics

According to the statistics for 2015 made available by the National Crime Records Bureau, 50.5% people in Punjab had addiction issues compared to the national average of 3.8%.

Root cause

The crux of the problem lies in a 1970 Supreme Court decision, which held that cinematic images instigate and cause harm. Sohini Ghosh, a film studies scholar, contradicts this juridical notion. When peeing in public is ubiquitous among Indian males, for example, is a movie going to instigate more men to urinate in public? It is all about innate habits and not cinematic instigation.

The film certification guidelines talk about sensitivity to public morals and values, but do they care about reality?

Ultimately, it all boils down to what William Mazzarella terms "productive provocation" in his book Censorium. That, however, doesn't take anything away from the Censor Board's ludicrous directions, which fall foul of the Constitution, and are already under challenge in court.

In 1968, a parliamentary committee headed by the retired judge GD Khosla had made it amply clear that censorship should not be used as tool to subvert and suppress reality, but its recommendations have been gathering dust ever since.

If Punjab's rulers and their allies are bent upon suppressing reality under the guise of morality, they must know they are trampling over our constitutional freedoms.

Also read: Udta Punjab or no Udta Punjab, there is a huge drug crisis in Punjab

First published: 11 June 2016, 4:17 IST
Saurav Datta @SauravDatta29

Saurav Datta works in the fields of media law and criminal justice reform in Mumbai and Delhi.