Censor Board’s Demands of Udta Punjab ‘Ridiculous’ But Industry Must Unite: Leela Samson

The weakest link in any fight with the censor board has always been the film industry, says the former chair. It must unite to fight for the rights of filmmakers now and in the future.

Anurag Kashyap and the Udta Punjab team at the Indian Film & Television Directors' Association press conference held on June 8. Credit: Youtube

Anurag Kashyap and the Udta Punjab team at the Indian Film & Television Directors’ Association press conference held on June 8. Credit: Youtube

It is “pretty obvious” that political forces are at play in the case of Udta Punjab – as happens in almost every other such case – says former chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Leela Samson resigned from her post in March last year over the release of the film MSG-Messenger of God, following which the current chairman Pahlaj Nihalani took over.

But, she also pointed out that the “weakest link” in any fight with the CBFC “has always been the [film] industry”. In an interview to The Wire, Samson elaborated on her view of the industry as “weak” by observing that its members “do not get together on major issues like this”. When in censorship trouble, filmmakers often prefer “to go to Delhi, meet the secretary and minister [of information and broadcasting], appeal on behalf of their own federation – but usually on behalf of their particular film – and bypass the offices of the CBFC”.

The ministry, she said, has been known to converse with individual filmmakers and come to an understanding pertinent to the particular case, leaving the CBFC out of the picture. But if it is possible to bypass the CBFC in this way, the ministry should simply dissolve the body altogether, she pointed out.

Samson commended Anurag Kashyap, one of the producers of the film, for saying that the battle for Udta Punjab is between the CBFC and the industry and for appealing the ministry to not interfere. “If only,” said Samson, “the industry would stand together and not let this rest, but demand justice and no interference – not just for this film but for so many others in the future.”

Explaining the certification process, Samson said the members of the CBFC viewing committee can at any time be biased against a film or its makers, of their own volition or through the coercion of other people. A few options – asking for a re-viewing committee to watch the film, approaching the appellate – are then open to the filmmakers. Crucially, justice is supposed to prevail at one of these stages.

But, said Samson, if the ethos of the viewing committee and the CBFC is confrontation – due to various political or religious agendas – the filmmakers “have little choice but to take up cudgels with the CBFC, as the producers of Udta Punjab have done.”

Commenting on the present case, she said the CBFC’s reported demand to remove the word ‘Punjab’ from the film’s title and narrative is “ridiculous”. But the point is that the CBFC is not mandated to tell an artist what to do. The role of the CBFC is to support good cinema. The ministry should take the lead in ensuring that every individual can express herself and that others can disagree – which is a constitutional right.

Samson said she believes that “the industry has the intelligence, the sensitivity and the clout to stand together – north and south, east and west – and demand that the revised Cinematographic Act be placed in parliament for deliberation and see that it is passed”.

“In 100 years of Indian cinema,” she questioned, “does this nation and the industry – that has striven all these years to become one of India’s highest foreign exchange earners, plus [won] tremendous goodwill… worldwide – not deserve to have an updated Act?”

But for that, she repeated, the industry must decide to unite and fight together. Only then will it win the respect of a massive and growing film-going audience in India and abroad, as well as ensure that young filmmakers will be able to comment upon ‘awkward’ social problems through adult films that are meaningful.

In a Facebook post on June 8, Samson’s impatience with the debate on Udta Punjab being limited to the CBFC’s demands is clear:

Leela Samson's June 8 Facebook post about the Udta Punjab controversy. Credit: Facebook

Leela Samson’s June 8 Facebook post about the Udta Punjab controversy. Credit: Facebook

The controversy so far

The CBFC originally demanded 40 cuts from the film for explicit language and visual substance abuse, on May 26. Phantom Films, co-producer of the film with Balaji Motion Pictures, approached the board for an ‘A’ certificate for the film. Instead, a revising committee demanded 89 cuts, asking the filmmakers to remove ‘Punjab’ from the title, as well as all references to Punjab, politics and elections, and for the film to be set in a fictional state rather than in Punjab.

Many filmmakers have since alleged that the CBFC’s demands are politically motivated. Following the CBFC’s second round of demands, Kashyap has been expressing frustration on Twitter, first over the ordered omissions and then over apparent allegations by third parties regarding his political connections.

Anurag Kashyap's latest tweets about the Udta Punjab controversy. Credit: Twitter

Anurag Kashyap’s latest tweets about the Udta Punjab controversy. Credit: Twitter

Various filmmakers and actors, including Karan Johar, Aamir Khan and Ram Gopal Verma, have expressed support of Kashyap and the film.

On June 8, Chaubey, Kashyap and other members of the Udta Punjab team, held a press conference in Mumbai, in which Chaubey publicly stated the producers’ decision to fight it out. The team realised, Chaubey said, that if it backed out today, “no director would be able to make a political film… [It] was morally wrong.”