Udta Punjab Row: Pahlaj Nihalani unites Bollywood

The Hindi film industry – Bollywood – for all its backslapping ways, rarely gets united behind a cause. You see the top stars and filmmakers exuding bonhomie whenever they are in public – at awards functions, red carpet occasions, parties, even in interviews when they say the nicest things about their colleagues.

But that is their public face. In private, there are camps, cliques and even attempts at one-upmanship. This is of course not limited to the film industry, but given the high profile and glitzy world of Bollywood, the contrast is glaring.

THE producers and actors of Udta Punjab are high-profile people and can draw attention to their own issues—on the other hand, a young documentary maker who has been running from pillar to post to get a certificate for her film En Dino Muzaffarnagar has received no help from any quarter. Even Kamal Swaroop, a highly regarded film maker, has got no backing from the industry to get his documentary about the election campaign in Varanasi in 2014 released.

So the fact that important names in the industry have banded together to stand up to Pahlaj Nihalani, chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is not just unusual but is also very welcome. Not just the fact of unity, such as it is, but that prominent names have got together for a cause such as arbitrary censorship is remarkable. Critics might carp that the really big names – the stars, for example – are conspicuous by their absence and that is unfortunately true, but Wednesday’s press conference was a first.

It has taken the Nihalani-led CBFC’s suggested cuts to the film Udta Punjab to bring the filmmakers together. The cuts are not just whimsical-they range from cutting expletives to removing any reference to Punjab and its towns by name – but the worst part is that the Board has not given anything in writing. The suggested cuts were orally conveyed to the producers—without a document, the producers cannot fight a legal battle. This is conniving behavior on the part of the CBFC.

Additionally, the Board kept on delaying informing the producers about its decisions, making it difficult for them to send off prints abroad to overseas distributors.

Clearly, the industry sees a plot in Nihalani’s actions. But this is no ‘rival’ sabotaging a film. Nihalani appears to be taking politically motivated decisions and this is confirmed by his statements, such as “Kashyap has taken money from Aam Aadmi Party”, “Of course I am a chamcha of the Indian prime minister; should I be a chamcha of an Italian Prime Minister?”

This suspicion is heightened by the fact that the theme of the movie – rampant use of drugs in Punjab – could reflect badly on the state and its government, which is a BJP ally. With elections on the way, and the Akali Dal likely to do badly, is Nihalani trying to protect them?

Till the other day, Nihalani was known for the lousy films he made. They were crude, full of cheap double-entendre and suggestive lyrics and dances and aimed at the basest instincts of audiences. It was a surprise that he was put in the exalted position as the chief of the censor board. But then he had one key qualification—total devotion to Narendra Modi.

Since taking over, Nihalani has done everything to ensure that his hero is deified, including making a tacky video praising “Modi Kaka” which was full of visuals from other countries. He has also begun imposing his own brand of censorship, producing a list of words that cannot be used in any film, which range from expletives to the word Bombay! Now, the cuts his team has reportedly imposed on Udta Punjab include not just obscenities and names of places but also a dog’s name which happens to be Jacky Chain.

Why, one would ask and under what provision? Nobody knows.

So we have on one side Pahlaj Nihalani, self-confessed chamcha of the prime minister and a growing number of people from film fraternity who are dissatisfied and disgruntled by his arbitrary ways. Arbitrary because films like Housefull 3, which are replete with crudity, manage to get by the censors without too many cuts. Clearly, Nihalani and his ilk are okay with sexism and jokes about handicapped people but not anything that smacks of realism.

But while raising a couple of cheers for film directors who have decided to take him on and stand up for freedom of expression, one also wants to sound a cautionary note. This should not remain a one-off event. The industry should unite on matters of principle, not just personal need. The producers and actors of Udta Punjab are high-profile people and can draw attention to their own issues—on the other hand, a young documentary maker who has been running around from pillar and post to get a certificate for her film En Dino Muzaffarnagar has received no help from any quarter. Even Kamal Swaroop, a highly regarded film maker, has got no backing from the industry to get his documentary about the election campaign in Varanasi in 2014 released. Clearly Nihalani is working to a plan, but the industry must realize that unless it fights for everyone, incidents such as Udta Punjab will keep happening.

Whichever way the Udta Punjab issue ends, the fact is that Nihalani has embarrassed his sponsors and this government. There may be some who might say that the government or indeed the BJP has nothing to do with what the head of an autonomous organization is doing, which is technically correct but not completely accurate.

Others are also saying that the government doesn’t know how to handle Nihalani; sacking him is not the answer since it will make the establishment lose face. This is absurd, since the government can easily tell him to be a bit more sober and sensible. For the moment he continues to be in this powerful position and the industry has to understand that; the only way he can be made to realize the error of his ways is for the industry to stay united and tell him his way of functioning will not work.

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