There is Method in the Way Pahlaj Nihalani Tripped Udta Punjab

There is unprecedented unity within the film industry in taking on CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani

Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt with Udta Punjab actors Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt at a press conference by Indian Film and Television Directors Association in Mumbai. Credit: PTI

Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt with Udta Punjab actors Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt at a press conference by Indian Film and Television Directors Association in Mumbai. Credit: PTI

On 6 June 2016, at around three-thirty in the night, director Abhishek Chaubey sent a text message to Vikas Bahl and Madhu Mantena, co-owners of Phantom Films, which, along with Balaji Motion Pictures, is co-producing his latest, Udta Punjab. “Let’s leave it. Let’s just release the film with the cuts. It’s going to be a big problem. And I don’t have the strength to fight anymore,” Chaubey wrote. “Somebody can sue me even after the film releases. You’ll get dragged into this; there’ll be financial liabilities. Who has the time?”

A few days ago, Udta Punjab’s makers had been ordered by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), (more popularly known as the censor board), to implement 89 cuts and remove all references to Punjab from the film – and all this for an adult certificate. (A latest report, however, says that the cuts have been brought down to 13, but they still remain problematic. Cuts ‘2’ and ‘6’, for instance, suggests the removal of ‘Punjab’, ‘Jalandhar’, ‘Chandigarh’, ‘Amritsar’, ‘Tarn Taran’, ‘Jashanpura’, ‘Ambesar’, ‘Ludhiana’, ‘Moga’, ‘election’, ‘MP’, ‘party’, ‘MLA’, ‘Punjab’, ‘parliament’, wherever they occur in the film, so that it is completely devoid of its setting and politics.)

The next day, Chaubey had a meeting with the producers and decided to fight it out. “Because we realised that whether our film releases with cuts or not, if we back out today,” Chaubey said, in a press conference, “then from now on, no director would be able to make a political film, take the name of a town, or a public figure. I thought it was morally wrong.”

Chaubey wasn’t the only member from the Udta Punjab team at the press conference. He was accompanied by the film’s producers Anurag Kashyap, Ekta Kapoor and Vikas Bahl, and actors Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt. But the press conference also included those who didn’t have any financial stake in the film: Imtiaz Ali, Sudhir Mishra, Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Aanand L. Rai, Mahesh Bhatt, Mukesh Bhatt and Ashwini Chaudhary.

This kind of solidarity is unusual – it is not the Bollywood we know. That Bollywood seldom speaks truth to power, seldom takes a stand, always plays it safe, unless the sword from the powers-to-be – often manifested in the form of the CBFC – is demanding its own neck. “Whenever Anurag speaks to news channels, he’s asked, ‘You always fight your battles alone. What support are you getting from the film industry?’ said Chaudhary, the General Secretary of the IFTDA (Indian Film and Television Directors’ Association) that had organised this press conference. “So I’d like to tell them that the entire industry is with him, as you can see here.”

The Bollywood filmmakers have not only been bullied by the CBFC, with an inconsistent, bizarre approach to censorship (most notably under the current CBFC chairman, Pahlaj Nihalani), but also by various right-wing factions calling for bans on films for the flimsiest of reasons.

In 2009, Karan Johar apologised to Raj Thackeray because Wake Up Sid, a film produced by him, had scenes where Mumbai was called Bombay. In 2000, Hansal Mehta’s office was vandalised, and his face was blackened with ink for his film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar and he had to apologise publicly. Directors are treated with utter disdain in this country. They are bullied, constantly told to toe the line.

And yet you seldom see a voice of collective support within the film industry that stands for its own people. A perfect example of this, in fact, was seen on Wednesday, when Amitabh Bachchan, currently on a promotional campaign for his film Te3n, which releases this week, was asked about the Udta Punjab controversy. Bachchan, arguably the most powerful man in the industry, said, “I’m not aware of the issue but would like to say that don’t try to kill creativity.” Bachchan’s response was emblematic of how the industry bigwigs have allowed this culture of bullying to sustain for so long – which has become embarrassing in Udta Punjab’s case.

Growing unity

But this is where the press conference, and Udta Punjab’s run-in with the censor board, differed. Over the last day-and-a-half, prominent Bollywood filmmakers and actors, for a change, didn’t keep quiet and spoke their mind. Johar not only tweeted that “Udta Punjab speaks of the reality of our time, and censoring reality amounts to delusion” but also that “the fraternity has to stand by what’s right.” Farhan Akhtar said, “Someone in the CBFC seems to be tripping hard on Lassi in the Sky with Diamonds.” Ram Gopal Varma put out a tweet saying, “The government should realise that by banning” a film like Udta Punjab, it was actually trying to “ban Udta [flying] truth.” A few hours ago, Johar wrote an impassioned piece where he made a plea to his peers: “Do you think it might be time for us to become a real industry, a community?” he wrote. “Could we consider going past just wishing people on Twitter or fake hugging on red carpets? It’s not difficult to remember the old trope: united we stand, divided we fall. And the last time I remember we stood together was at a funeral and, that too, not for long.”

The filmmakers and producers at the press conference were clearly disappointed and incensed by this blatant muzzling of freedom of expression, but they also talked, in some detail, about something else: How Nihalani had made sure that Udta Punjab couldn’t meet its release date, thereby causing a loss of a good few crores to its producers. “Whatever is happening is quite futile, because ultimately Udta Punjab will be seen. It will ultimately come on the Internet. You [the CBFC] can just delay it and hamper the filmmakers and producers,” Mishra said. “So maybe you want to send this message – that, ‘Don’t invest in films like these,’ so that people will be scared to make them. But I’m not going to get scared, and I don’t think anyone else here would, too.”

There appears to be method in CBFC chairman Nihalani’s decision-making. Producer Mukesh Bhatt, attending the press conference in the “capacity of [The Film and Television] Producers Guild’s President”, broke down Nihalani’s modus operandi thus: “Udta Punjab’s makers applied for a censor certificate on May 10 for a film releasing on June 17.” Bollywood filmmakers usually don’t apply for a censor certificate that much in advance. And they don’t do so because, among other reasons, they fear that the censor copy of, or any other information about, their film can get leaked. The producers of Udta Punjab, however, could anticipate their run-in with the censor board and hence applied for a certificate early. “And the CBFC knowingly tried everything it could, to delay this process,” Bhatt said.

The examining committee, said Bhatt, first saw the film on May 18. Then, it “verbally conveyed” the information that the “committee members can’t arrive on a decision.” The CBFC intentionally didn’t give anything in writing because the producers “couldn’t go to the [Film Certification Appellate] Tribunal [FCAT] – that one recourse available to them.” The film then got stuck with the revising committee that imposed strange restrictions and still didn’t give an official list of cuts, so that the producers couldn’t exercise their rights. “This system is intentionally designed in such a way so that it can hold the producers at ransom,” he said. “In fact, the producers have got the list of cuts only two hours ago. The film is slated to release in nine days. You’ve to give the overseas delivery a week in advance. And the chairman of the censor board is an industry insider. He knows this.”

The CBFC was supposed to give an official list of cuts, in writing on June 6, said Kashyap, which they didn’t. On June 7, Udta Punjab’s producers sent a legal letter to the CBFC office, asking for a letter detailing the cuts, but they didn’t receive any. “In fact, we’ve a letter from the CBFC office, saying they received the legal letter,” Kashyap said. “Today we went to the high court, and after the first hearing, we got the letter of cuts,” he said. “We’re really running short of time. We immediately applied for FCAT, but the judge for FCAT is not available till the 16th,” a day before the film’s initial release date. “Anurag, this is intentional. They knew that the FCAT’s chairman is going on leave from the 1st,” Bhatt said. “They spoke to the people from FCAT and delayed the process so that you wouldn’t get the opportunity to approach them. This is a vicious move.”

Nihalani’s actions

The most troubling bit about this episode is the man controlling the CBFC at the moment, Nihalani. For the past year-and-a-half, Nihalani has constantly managed to stay in the news for all kinds of wrong reasons. This morning, he opened up about his reservations on Udta Punjab. “The movie, the way it is, cannot be cleared because it is against the guidelines of the CBFC to defame any person or community,” he said. Nihalani has been parroting and using the same guidelines to ban and squash any film that he deems fit. Using these guidelines the board refused a censor certificate to En Dino Muzaffarnagar less than a month ago (where just like the Udta Punjab case, the censor board officials used everything in their power to crush a film that spoke against the party in power).

Similarly, Kamal Swaroop’s documentary The Dance of Democracy — Battle for Banaras also found it difficult to get a certificate. Nihalani embarrassed himself further in the same interview, saying, “98% of the movie is in Punjabi. It’s not a Hindi film at all”; “it paints all Punjabis in a bad light”; “such a film will bring [a] bad name to the community present everywhere in the world.” Nihalani didn’t just have a problem with the human beings in the film. A dog in the film called Jackie Chan came under scrutiny, too. “We’ve asked them to take off Chan and call the dog just Jackie,” said a censor board member. If dogs could read, they would cry.

Nihalani, of course, didn’t just stop at that. He then did what he’s most known for: He cracked a few jokes – all unintentional, of course.

In another interview, published later, he said, “Mr Kashyap is like a child being denied a toy”; “how is the film a work of fiction when it is naming every major town in Punjab from Amritsar to Tarn Taran as a drug den?” And it just got better, “Almost every line that Shahid Kapoor speaks is filled with the most explicit abuses and gaalis (expletives) that even I hadn’t heard. We said ok let him abuse when his character is under the influence of drugs. But why should he speak like that when normal?”

But clearly even this wasn’t the worst. Nihalani also said that he had “heard” that Kashyap “had taken money from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)” to show Punjab in poor light.

Nihalani has made this issue political, because it is a political issue, and the CBFC is a politicised space. Punjab goes to election early next year. Drug abuse is indeed a major problem plaguing the state. However, the leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal, ruling Punjab in coalition with the Bhartiya Janta Party, think otherwise. In February 2016, Sukhbir Singh Badal, Punjab’s deputy chief minister, said that there were only “16,000 drug addicts” in the state, citing the Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey (PODS), conducted by the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses and the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS). The actual numbers, as reported by the same survey, are 15 times higher. The PODS report states that the estimated number of opioid drug addicts in Punjab is 2.32 lakh (and this just includes the population dependent on it; the opioid users in the state are around 8.6 lakh) – around six times the world average (considering people in the age group 15-64).

So the simple question is this: How can you take a man like Nihalani seriously? And yet, he must be taken seriously because he gets to decide the number of times “Punjab” should be uttered in a film like Udta Punjab; he gets to decide the duration of kisses in our films; he gets to decide that homosexuality is unsuitable for public viewing; he gets to decide, on our behalf, what is right, and what is wrong.

The CBFC, over the past-year-and-a-half, has been allowed to run unchecked under Nihalani’s regime. Its previous victims have been filmmakers and producers with limited clout and appeal, but that’s not the case with Udta Punjab. Because this film is backed by two big production houses, Balaji Motion Pictures (which is also distributing the movie) and Phantom Films, which include such names as Ekta Kapoor and Kashyap; it features not only Bollywood stars, Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Kareena Kapoor, but also one of the leading actors in the Punjabi film industry, Diljit Dosanjh. If the CBFC has its way one more time, this time, then the story ends here. A good fight at least deserves a good ending.