Will Suppressing Free Speech In ‘Udta Punjab’ Solve The State’s Rampant Drug Abuse?

Posted on June 9, 2016 in Society

By Shruti Sonal:

The censor board has once again wielded its scissors and recommended 89 cuts in the movie ‘Udta Punjab’. This has left producer Anurag Kashyap miffed, prompting him to compare the stifling of expression to the situation in North Korea. A host of Bollywood celebrities like Karan Johar and Arjun Kapoor came out in his support. In a press conference held on Wednesday, the lead actor Shahid Kapoor assertively said, “If the youth don’t have the right to know that drugs are bad, it is a clear assault on freedom of expression.” The debate on the role of censor board and political influence on its decisions has been reignited again.

Cinema has always been a tool to mirror the grim realities of society on the screen. Be it the neo-realist cinema of the fifties led by directors such as Chetan Anand, K. A. Abbas, Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray, or the parallel movement of the eighties led by Mrinal Sen, Mira Nair and Shyam Benegal. For their political content, several movies have been banned, such as ‘Aandhi’ portraying the emergency and ‘Parzania’, capturing the callousness of the authorities in the Godhra riots.

‘Udta Punjab’, daring to portray the long-existing drug problem in the state of Punjab has become the new prey. As state assembly elections are not too far away, the ruling SAD regime has come out strongly against the makers of showing Punjab in a bad light as a hub of drug addicts. Hence, the censor board came up with the brilliant idea of directing the makers to remove any mention of Punjab in the movie. Realism, what was it again?

The question that arises is will 89 cuts or not mentioning Punjab save it from “bad light”? If saving Punjab’s image is more important for the CM than saving lives, he will have to oppose many other sources.

shyam benegal
Shyam Benegal.

A study conducted by AIIMS, commissioned by the Centre and conducted in 2015, titled the Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey says that there are 2.32 lakh opioid-drug dependents (addicts) in Punjab. This implies that 0.84% of the state’s total population are addicted to drugs. The figure can be much higher as the study does not cover marijuana or the synthetic and prescription drugs. The survey estimates that 8.6 lakh individuals have at least ‘used’ opioid-based drugs. That is about 4.5% of Punjab’s adult population.

These are real figures. Will the authorities turn themselves away from them too? And will setting the movie in a ‘fictional’ landscape, as suggested by the censor board, make the situation any less grim? If anything, the ridiculousness of the controversy has turned more attention towards the state of Punjab and its suffering. The Board has to set its priorities straight. Is cinema going to be a dynamic tool reflecting sociopolitical realities or a watered down medium of showing ‘happily ever afters’? After all, drugs and substance abuse are a massive issue and filmmakers must have the freedom to portray it in their narratives.

As producers get ready to fight it out in the Bombay High Court, there’s reason for hope. Judiciary has on numerous occasions given primacy to filmmakers’ freedom of expression. In the S. Rangarajan vs. P. Jagjivan Ram case of 1989, for example, the Supreme Court highlighted that “Censors should not have an orthodox or conservative outlook, but must be responsive to change and must go with the current climate.” The solution lies in a suggestion given by the Shyam Benegal Committee set up early this year that emphasised that the “CBFC should only be a film certification body whose scope should be restricted to categorising the suitability of the film to [target] audience groups”.

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