Udta Punjab: A Catalyst for Change?

Positioned at the intersection of various debates, Udta Punjab may be judged for the precedent it has set rather than the film it is, but that is no reason to complain

Dhruba Basu Delhi 

It goes more or less without saying that Udta Punjab will be recognised by posterity as a significant moment in Indian cinema. What this effectively means is that the film itself is of less importance than the discourse it has spawned and been caught up in. It is, first and foremost, the rebel child that put the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in its place. It is fair to say that the content is umbilical to the discourse and the two cannot be separated, but it is also likely that the film’s hallowed position in the public consciousness has prepared the ground for its lapses to be handled with kid gloves.

Approaching the film involves an appreciation of this phenomenon. On the one hand are the crucial questions dragged into the open and, subsequently, into the Bombay High Court by the film fraternity’s long-overdue stand against the diktat of the CBFC. The most prominent of these was perhaps the matter of the board’s jurisdiction, which, the High Court declared unequivocally on June 13, does not include powers of censorship.

To be clear, the CBFC is constitutionally empowered by the Cinematograph Act of 1952 to certify films as suitable for a) unrestricted public exhibition (“U”), b) public exhibition subject to parental guidance for children below the age of 12 (“UA”), c) public exhibition restricted to adult audiences (“A”), and d) public exhibition restricted to specialised audiences like doctors and scientists (“S”). But it is also within its rights, as per the guidelines under Section 5B of the Act, to deny any certificate to a film if it “or any part of it is against the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the States, friendly relations with [a] foreign State, public order, decency or morality or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence”.

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The terrain that this qualification brings into view is a classic example of a legal minefield, as notions of what constitutes decency or morality are open-ended, to say the least. The one cut that the Bombay HC decided to uphold, from among the 13 that the Revising Committee had whittled the original list of 89 down to, featured a central character urinating on members of a public gathering. This surely qualifies as indecent behaviour, but denying a filmmaker the right to portray it puts the spotlight on films that have escaped similar denials; a number of films starring Tusshar Kapoor, Aftab Shivdasani, Riteish Deshmukh, Vivek Oberoi, and Anupam Kher come to mind. How clear are these lines of decency, really?

Nevertheless, the real game-changers have been the references to sovereignty, security and public order. Since Pahlaj Nihalani took over as chairman of the CBFC amidst much controversy last year, a tradition of invoking this mantra has become firmly entrenched in its functioning. Victims include Kamal Swaroop’s Dance of Democracy, Shubhradeep Chakravorty’s En Dino Muzaffarnagar and Pankaj Butalia’s The Textures of Loss. Common to all of these documentaries is an engagement with themes that do not flatter the state. Dance of Democracy concerns the heated campaigns of Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal for the Varanasi seat in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which Nihalani adjudged ‘pro-Kejriwal’ and the CBFC refused to certify on the pretext that ‘it may cause...communal disharmony’; En Dino Muzaffarnagar, on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots that several BJP members were linked to, was denied a certificate for the same reason; The Textures of Loss consists of interviews with victims and witnesses of the long-term violence in Kashmir, making it an obvious target for anti-national labelling. 

Sacrificing voices of truth and resistance at the altar of national interest is hardly a new phenomenon in this country. Documentarians like Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma have had to take recourse to the judicial system and civil society to save their work from the CBFC guillotine in the past. What is novel about the current phase is the frequency of the board’s intervention and its blatant partisanship towards the party in power, best expressed in Nihalani’s proud claim that he was most definitely a chamcha of the Prime Minister.

A harbinger of this should have been the resignation letter written by nine CBFC members in January 2015 to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Coming in the wake of the Messenger of God row that prompted board chief Leela Samson to step down, the letter stated in no unclear terms that “given the cavalier and dismissive manner in which the CBFC is treated by our government, it is impossible to perform this duty with even a modicum of efficacy and autonomy”.

The real game-changers have been the references to sovereignty, security and public order. Since Pahlaj Nihalani took over as chairman of the CBFC amidst much controversy last year, a tradition of invoking this mantra has become firmly entrenched in its functioning. Victims include Kamal Swaroop’s Dance of Democracy, Shubhradeep Chakravorty’s En Dino Muzaffarnagar and Pankaj Butalia’s The Textures of Loss

In these censorious times, what makes Udta Punjab so important is the fact that it is not a documentary. Not withstanding the hard-fought victories of the above-mentioned luminaries, the documentary, in the words of Pankaj Butalia, “is a small cottage industry that exists on the periphery of mainstream cinema … [and] does not even have the kind of viewership which could be a threat to state or society”. Udta Punjab, by contrast, belongs to the category of mainstream cinema that commands mass viewership. By refusing to let it be trampled on, producer Anurag Kashyap did what the makers of Mohalla Assi, which was denied certification in April 2015, did not: he capitalised on its prominence in public discourse to influence that discourse, instead of letting it die down. As a result, the draconian workings of the CBFC have now become a conversational commonplace. Films like Shorgul (another narrativisation of the Muzaffarnagar riots, starring Jimmy Shergill), Kathakali (a Malayalam film in which the male protagonist is seen undressed in two scenes) and Salagto Sawal: Anamat (a Gujarati film based on the Patel quota agitations), all of which are lodged in the CBFC pipeline at the moment, would do well to stick to their guns and make this a season of cinematic rebellion.

On the other hand, there is the film itself. Having made its way out of this morass of issues and into cinemas across the country, the all-important question was, was all the hype justified? The debates preceding its release had already put in place the criteria for judging it. The main issues were language, narco-politics and the image of Punjab. Half the battle would be won if audiences were convinced of the film’s good intentions on these fronts, and the remainder could be left to the combined star power of Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor and Punjabi homeboy Diljit Dosanjh. 

To begin with the matter of language, the film is unproblematic. Nothing about the way cops and the youth are shown to speak suggests a departure from reality. Stated simply, it is ludicrous to demand that filmmakers conform to the standards of an imagined society unsullied by verbal abuse. In the inelegant but succinct words of a Bombay HC judge, “Audience is very open-minded now. Films don’t get ruined due to language.” On the other hand, the CBFC’s reasoning for accepting cuss words in certain contexts but not in others reveals the absurd shallowness of its position: “Till Tommy is a drug addict we understand he can cuss, why is he cussing after he reforms as well?”

As far as narco-politics and the image of Punjab go, it can be ventured with some certainty that no Indian film has ever depicted drug use so relentlessly and candidly. This makes it especially chilling that, as per a report in The Indian Express, residents of Punjab were unfazed by what they saw, with one claiming, “This movie is a trailer, the real Udta Punjab is out there.” If there is any element of truth in this assertion (and by all accounts there is), Punjab’s drug problem is truly very, very serious. The movie broadly looks at how drugs ensnare people, how people promote drugs, and how difficult it is for people and drugs to part ways. It does this in an anthological way, with various story arcs playing out and coming together at different moments.

One of these concerns rock star Tommy Singh, whose popularity is matched only by his lack of talent and love for drugs and parties, a love that he sells to his youthful followers through inane songs that endorse pseudo-nihilistic recklessness as the cornerstone of anti-establishment ‘cool’. Tommy becomes the victim of a drug bust meant to broadcast the state government’s anti-drug credentials, but (of course) he’s merely the fall guy in a cover-up operation...because (of course) the state government is knee-deep in the racket. The agent of the government’s will on the ground is (of course) the police force, of whom the alpha Sartaj Singh is a willing but naive member. When Preeti Sahni schools him in the complicity of the police and politicians in the drug problem that is ravaging the state, he teams up with her to get to the bottom of the supply chain. At the very bottom of the world they investigate is a Bihari migrant labourer who chanced upon a packet of drugs and landed herself in a dingy corner of hell.

The film also misses out on the opportunity to debunk the theory that the drugs in the country come only from outside its territory, choosing instead to begin by showing a Pakistani discus thrower launching a three-kg packet over the border

At a thematic level, the film delivers. Drug users are largely either framed as victims of negligence/systems of exploitation or on a complicated path to recovery. It is clear that the State apparatus is not only unresponsive to a situation that has long been spiralling out of control, but is responsible for the spiral. These aspects of the narrative mirror what is going on in Punjab, as corroborated by media reports. The prisons of Punjab are being filled with users, not suppliers. The state’s healthcare infrastructure is manifestly ill-equipped to deal with the rehabilitation of addicts, as is the case all over the country. Numerous members of the BJP and SAD have been arrested in connection with the drug trade and a deep police-smuggler network has been reported. Cross-border links have been identified as responsible for the ease with which the Pathankot attacks last year were carried out. In presenting all of this through a summer blockbuster at a time when it requires urgent attention, Udta Punjab must be lauded. It leaves little room for doubt about why the state government was so invested in the attempts to modify the film, a year before Assembly elections are due in Punjab. Not all of it is written convincingly, particularly not the romance-cum-vigilante-investigation launched by Sartaj Singh and Sahni, which sets a world record for the shortest time ever taken to plan a potential drug bust.

But the film’s over-the-top, unsubtle quality does at the same time manage to pack a comic-book punch, for which the credit goes largely to the actors, who by and large inhabit their roles so completely that the plausibility of the narrative is sometimes less important than the metaphorical or symbolic value of the characters. This is especially so in the case of Shahid Kapoor’s portrayal of Tommy Singh, a no-holds-barred tragicomic festival of entertainment unto itself that reinforces (after Kaminey and Haider) his ability to take hold of certain personas and squeeze every possible emotion out of them in a way that no other actor of his generation can. Alia Bhatt, the Bihari migrant labourer, adds another notch to her tally of lone-girl characters (Highway, Kapoor & Sons) and continues to impress with her versatility and lack of inhibition, although her character exemplifies some of the weaker aspects of the writing. The first interactions between her character and Tommy as they run from their respective demons are both bizarre and compelling, reminiscent of King Lear and Fool on the heath in King Lear but at the same time raising a number of questions, such as how a Bihari migrant labourer knows the cultural implications of a kiss on the mouth and how she handles withdrawal from drug dependence with such poise. The film also misses out on the opportunity to debunk the theory that the drugs in the country come only from outside its territory, choosing instead to begin by showing a Pakistani discus thrower launching a three-kg packet over the border.

The lack of an airtight script does jar, but not enough to ruin what is otherwise a worthwhile effort, bolstered considerably by an exhilarating and poignant soundtrack that signals a tremendous return to form for Amit Trivedi.

It is a blessed moment indeed in Hindi cinema when a real and contemporary issue is brought in a cogent form to the big screen by big names who made a big, big deal about not compromising their values and vision, raising questions of art’s responsibility to society and of creative freedom. If that is what posterity chooses to focus on, Udta Punjab has earned it.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2016