The Udta Punjab controversy could not have come at a worse time for the NDA government at the Centre. By insisting on senseless cuts in the Anurag Kashyap film, Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) chief Pahlaj Nihalani has given ample proof of bigotry as well as his incompetence. He has also provided ample grounds to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to remove him from his position despite his proclamation that he was a chamcha of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
At one stage, Nihalani’s action threatened to overshadow Modi’s historic visit to five countries as it lapped up headlines on all major TV channels that lashed out at the Censor Board, as the CBFC is popularly known, and accused it of suppressing freedom of expression. To add to the BJP’s woes, some of its activists also appeared on TV and thus seemed defending the CBFC chairman’s indefensible indiscretions. The entire saga, as it played out in the public domain, embarrassed the establishment and Nihalani went on to add political colour to it by alleging that Kashyap was a supporter of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and had apparently made his movie to help its campaign during the Punjab Assembly polls early next year. He advocated major cuts in the film which he felt were aimed at portraying Punjab as a hub of the drug menace and therefore in the process bringing a bad name to the administration there.
Nothing could have been more damaging for the Akali Dal and the BJP, whom Nihalani tried to “protect” by his “holier than thou” attitude. In fact, he ended up highlighting the severe limitations of the state government in dealing with the growing narcotics activity and substance abuse that have affected the youth adversely. In normal course, the movie would have done slight business before vanishing from public memory. However, it has now become a symbol of what is acutely wrong in the state and those who were oblivious of the problem are now fully aware that the abuse has gone up manifold during the nine-year continuous reign of the Akali-BJP government in Punjab. There are allegations that a powerful politician, who is from a prominent family, has a huge interest in the promotion and sale of banned substances, thereby lending a political backing to the drug trade. There are also elements in the Congress party who have had a record of hobnobbing with undesirable narcotic dealers in the past and could be also conniving with the present promoters, who obviously enjoy the patronage of several officials.
Nihalani’s handling of the Udta Punjab issue has provided the opposition a solid plank to base its campaign next year. The AAP, for instance, was pleasantly surprised after it was accused of being behind Kashyap’s venture and has already declared that the next Punjab elections would be contested on the drug issue. While the outcome of the polls is anybody’s guess at this stage, but if AAP manages to win Punjab, it should certainly send Pahlaj Nihalani to the Rajya Sabha from there for helping its campaign to get feathers to fly to victory in the border state.
It is not for the first time that the Censor Board has got the short end of the stick as its actions during the tenures of earlier governments have also received flak from the defenders of the right to freedom of expression. However, in this day and age when many top BJP leaders also do not share the narrow minded approach of Nihalani and some of his equally culpable colleagues, it is perplexing how he has been allowed to continue in this capacity. A high powered committee headed by noted filmmaker Shyam Benegal has submitted its report on the role and structure of the CBFC and the government is yet to take a call on its recommendations. The Benegal committee was set up because there is realisation in the ministry and the government that the present CBFC has fallen short of expectations. It is also an admission that the members nominated to the CBFC are by and large below par and are incapable of certifying films objectively. Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley is a liberal person and it is not possible that he would ever back the decisions of Nihalani and company. The question here is: who then is responsible for appointing such people to significant positions? It is evident that forces outside the ministry have influenced the decision of getting Nihalani the coveted job. In many ways, his case is similar to that of Gajendra Chauhan, who was appointed as the chairman of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. The BJP has various talented and versatile individuals in its ranks who would prove their worth far better than the current occupants. To name a few there are Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha, Salim Khan, Anupam Kher and Paresh Rawal. One cannot overlook apolitical artistes like Benegal who are respected by the film fraternity for their body of work.
Udta Punjab is merely a depiction of the reality of the state. A study conducted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences under Dr Atul Ambekar suggests that Punjab has an acute problem of opioid addiction and dependence. This menace is spreading like forest fire in other parts of the country as well. The remedy, therefore, lies in not wasting time in censoring films but in immediate and substantial action. Between us.