By Damini Kulkarni:
Conversations 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 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 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 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 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.