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How “Bad Light” Is The Censor Board’s Latest Excuse To Ban Films

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By Damini Kulkarni:

Udta Punjab posterConversations around the banned-but-not-quite-banned-(yet) status of the film Udta Punjab emphatically signals the arrival of yet another manifestation of public outrage towards media depictions. After the famous ‘taking offence’ we now have a new spectre – ‘portrayal in a bad light’. Instead of ‘taking offence’ at media portrayals, we now have people sagely pointing out that media (in any form) ‘portrays so-and-so in a bad light’. No messy emotions involved. Not much logic or justification either, just the pretence of it.

Of course, as the brouhaha around Tanmay Bhat‘s Snapchat video mocking Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar indicates, ‘taking offence’ still reigns supreme. Nothing could quite parallel the efficiency with which we ‘take offence’. But the vast and politically potent legacy of ‘offence’ is likely to be threatened by the unexamined ‘bad light’ argument. It is a close cousin of ‘taking offence’, to be sure, but appears more intellectual and less emotional than its older kin.

Hindi Films and the Bad Light Argument

Hindi films are regular targets of the ‘bad light’ argument. Several films, including Airlift, ‘Main Hoon Rajinikanth’ and ‘Jai Gangaajal’ have been criticised for portraying a community, a person or a state in ‘bad light’. One wonders what ‘bad light’ actually means in this case. Do they mean aesthetically bad light? Do they mean that the light highlights flaws in the object depicted? Or do they mean that the light in question disfigures the object shown? The shades of ‘bad light’ are many, but no one really bothers to clarify which one it is they mean.

An early casualty of the ‘bad light’ argument (as applied to cinema) is illustrated by the Bond film, ‘Skyfall’. The opening sequence of the film, in which James Bond fights on top of a train, was originally intended to be shot at a railway bridge in Goa. But talks between the makers of ‘Skyfall’ and the railway minister Dinesh Trivedi fell through. Trivedi insisted, among other things, that he would not allow the film to portray India in a ‘poor light’. The scene was finally shot in Hacikiri village in southern Turkey, which has seen a massive influx of tourists since the film released. The penchant with ‘portrayal in a good light’ turned out to be quite expensive for India in this case.

The undeniable potency of cinematic representations requires us to call out depictions which are likely to be harmful. That’s why there is nothing wrong with the ‘bad light’ argument in theory. But when it is applied, it seems to exonerate the accusing party of making an actual case about what exactly is bad about the light and why the depiction is potentially harmful. That is a problem. The argument, as it is being used now, makes for a wonderfully inclusive, if not very insightful, critique. ‘Udta Punjab’ is the newest victim of this illogical argument.

Udta Punjab’s Bad Light

Udta Punjab’s trailer indicates that it revolves around the drug abuse problem that famously plagues the state. A mere trailer does not define a film, but Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) MLA Khem Karan Virsa Singh Valtoha garnered enough from that snippet to conclude that the film portrays Punjabis and Punjab in a bad light. What kind of bad light? How will it harm Punjabis? He doesn’t quite say. The political party (like any self-respecting institution that tracks its own popularity on social media would) eventually disowned his comment, stating that the sentiments he aired were largely personal. Considering that Punjab is going to polls next February, however, the personal in this case appears to be more political than usual.

William Mazzarella, who has made an extensive study of the history of Indian censorship and co-edited ‘Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction’, made a vital point in a recent interview when he said that censorship is a performative art. In the interview, he says, “In a way, censorship is capitalising on the controversy; authority thrives on attention, and it gets attention.”

Udta Punjab was the perfect site for performative censorship. Its star cast, the buzz around it and the subject, all made it a ready stage for the SAD (a cruel acronym considering the context) upon which to perform their bid for censorship. ‘Bad light’ made for a beautifully ambiguous argument backing that performance. That this performance was not too well received is not the point. The point is that it was noticed. The point is also that no one asked for any clarification as to what Valhota precisely meant when he said that the film portrays Punjab in a bad light. The entire episode culminated in the Central Board of Film Certification refusing to certify the film, necessitating an appeal to the Revising Committee and possibly the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal.

The Strange Justifications of the Central Board of Film Certification

Udta Punjab movie stillThe Central Board of Film Certification often caves when someone points out that a film depicts them in a bad light. The contours of the argument are rarely examined. In the case of Udta Punjab, however, ‘bad light’ is ostensibly not a factor on the part of the CBFC. They have an objection with expletives and scenes of substance abuse depicted in a film which was anticipated to be cleared with an A-certificate. The justification rings hollow for two reasons.

One, the censor board cleared the trailer for the film without any beeps or cuts. This is a trailer which includes multiple instances of people swearing and scenes of drug abuse. After clearing the trailer, one wonders what the CBFC was expecting to see in the film. While it is certainly not legally mandatory for the CBFC to clear a film once they have cleared the trailer, their sudden angst with scenes of substance abuse in a film that clearly puts a serial drug abuser at the centre of the story, seems logically inconsistent.

Secondly, neither swear words nor drugs are foreign or scarring concepts for most Indian adults. If the CBFC thinks contrarily, it is more antiquated and paternalistic than the average Indian grandparent. This situation is a perfect embodiment of that famous quote: Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it. The CBFC and the SAD cannot even stomach the sight of the steak in this case, let alone try to chew it. Such is their beef (all puns and ironies intended) that they won’t allow us a sample either.

The Legacy of Bad Light

The political undercurrents running through CBFC decisions have gained considerable notoriety. The board itself has a history of refusing to certify films that it thinks do not portray certain communities or individuals in a good light. For instance, the board refused to pass and certify National award winning filmmaker Kamal Swaroop’s documentary ‘Battle For Banaras’ because it thought the film showed the PM in a bad light.

The arbitrary manner in which CBFC often asks for cuts because a scene portrays something or someone in a bad light has consistently drawn public ire. Several actors and directors have expressed their irritation with the board for its make-it-up-as-you-go approach. The Shyam Benegal panel constituted to revamp the CBFC, made a formal recommendation to replace the current procedure with a rating system.

A changed system might mitigate problems but is not likely to eliminate them. Because as long as is it permissible to say ‘the film portrays so-and-so in a bad light’ without really examining the nature, need, social relevance and possible impact of that portrayal, the problem of arbitrarily penalising certain kinds of films is likely to remain.

It’s not just ‘Udta Punjab’ that is facing an issue with the Censor Board. Did you know that James Bond also got intro trouble? Check this out.

Don’t Kiss For Long! Censor Board Tells James Bond, And Twitter Gives A Hilarious Response

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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