With Udta Punjab, it’s Now Time for Censorship to be Re-Redefined

Film critic & filmmaker Khalid Mohamed shares his past experiences with censorship and why it’s time for BIG change

4 min read
Diljit Dosanjh, Kareena Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Shahid Kapoor at a promotional event for <i>Udta Punjab</i> (Photo: Yogen Shah; altered by The Quint)

As many as 89 cuts ordered. Punjab won’t do in the title, just call it Udta or whatever. Assembly elections in Punjab are just eight months away, and the film’s announced release is just 10 days away.

The state’s Shiromani Akali Dal is upset. The film’s producer, Anurag Kashyap, is upset. Director Abhishek Chaubey’s depiction of rampant drug abuse, can’t show. Salty gaalis, bandh karo. The contentious case is being taken to High Court, the headlines roar. Twitter is littered with pro- and anti-comments.

So, why am I adding my two-penny’s worth to a controversy, which I suspect will inevitably end with a whimper? Udta Punjab, if sound sense prevails, will make it to the auditoria. Sure, there will be some bleep-bleeps, tucks and nips which will merely exacerbate the viewer’s imagination. Be it prohibition of alcohol or film censorship taboos, the forbidden becomes infinitely more tempting: a must-have.

Frankly, film censorship which has pockmarked the hallowed face of freedom of expression, is plumbing new depths. It has always been omnipresent, though, whichever ruling government may be in power.

The incumbent BJP government, from all accounts, is in a quandary about what to do with Pahlaj Nihalani, the current chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification. If he’s sacked, that would mean admitting a serious error. And if he is kept in the seat, the plot may thicken and sicken.

Why is Pahlaj Nihalani coming down so hard on <i>Udta Punjab</i>? (Photo: Twitter)
Why is Pahlaj Nihalani coming down so hard on Udta Punjab? (Photo: Twitter)

The gambit of appointing an advisory committee led by the consistently balanced Shyam Benegal has submitted its recommendations, which alas still remain only on paper. While a way out is being sought, Udta Punjab has plonked right into the cauldron. The tu tu main main intensifies.

Now, I’m no authority to suggest quick-fix solutions. All I can offer are some personal hazards endured towards getting a film cleared.

Around 1998, the secretary of BJP’s star Shatrughan Sinha called for my bio-data. “You are being appointed,” he said gravely, “ as a panel member of the censor’s examining committee.” Yaaaay?

Not exactly. I would be called in only to ‘examine’ small-budget films, and not potential blockbusters, since it was presumed that I would be ‘strict’ with them.


Censors, incidentally, fall into the ‘lenient’ and ‘strict’ categories, and are summoned by junior officers who can easily manipulate the composition of a committee for a particular film. After a year of watching mainly art-house movies and documentaries on dairy farming, assorted manure and electricity lighting up remote villages, I understood I was being had. I quit.

Fiza (2000) was being censored at the Liberty preview theatre. My heart was in my mouth. During the screening, a member walked towards the wash-room. He looked at me as if I was a tapeworm. Cuts were ordered, especially in the depiction of communal riots. A scene showing Karisma Kapoor admonishing a newspaper’s editor about his gutlessness was preserved mercifully but shortened.

The film’s producer said, “No point arguing. What if the revising committee asks for more cuts?” Compromise accepted. Next: a political party wanted a special screening. It was organised, some berating remarks aside, no objections. Phew!

Tehzeeb (2003): I was called in after the censor screening. A woman journalist complained that she did not like to see Urmila Matondkar’s cleavage. I reasoned that her character was serving dinner and had to bend at the table. Reduce the cleavage, she thundered. It was reduced.

Silsilaay (2005): I expected an ‘adults only’ certificate because of its bold theme of a woman’s right of sexual independence and the reduction of the kissing scenes. The producer said, “Leave it to me.” I did.

I was called in to be told by the examining committee that they had loved the film, no cuts, and a lenient UA Certificate. The producer smiled, “See, I told you, sab ho jaayega.” Moral of the story: sometimes a big fish in a big pond can do anything.

<i>Tehzeeb </i>(2003)
Tehzeeb (2003)

Little Big People (2014) : This documentary on Mumbai’s talented street kids showed a pre-teen tightrope walker, a boy. The tradition as we found out, was to dress up boys as girls to gain more sympathy from the street audience. Countless boys grew up to believe they were girls and became cross-dressers.

This couldn’t be shown to children, the documentary on kids was given in this case, an unfair UA certificate, requiring minors to be accompanied by adults (whatever that means). An episode showing a six-year-old, crack addict vending drugs at bus stops – and using gaalis ever so innocently -- I didn’t dare to include. The censors would’ve excised the entire sequence, or it would have been shred to ribbons.

And so it has gone on. I hope Udta Punjab, in whatever form, does make it on June 17th. It is hardly alone in facing censorship flak. Clearly, the censorship system has to be re-redefined in principle and in practice. Or else the wings of many more Udta Punjabs will be clipped for committing the sin of frank speak.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter.)

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