Much was made of the embargo surrounding the release of the movie Lipstick Under my Burkha, or the 2016 release Udta Punjab, a movie that highlighted the drug problem in the state. The movies ran into trouble with the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC) over their title, content and references, and much of the criticism was directed at CBFC chairman Pahlaj Nihalani, and understandably so, for he has in all his public appearances appeared incompetent, out of touch with the times and constantly trying to prove his loyalty to those who appointed him.
However, the controversy around the two movies goes beyond just one man’s shenanigans. It is the manifestation of a state that empowers itself unreasonably in the good name of public interest. This imposition of choice is something prevalent not just in the Censor Board but also in a plethora of Government and Government-affiliated institutions, in dictating what books to read, (banning Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses), borderline ludicrous banning of websites (the likes of which included sports news website Bleacher Report for reasons hard to comprehend) and questioning the serving of non-vegetarian food in IITs (in a letter forwarded to the Ministry of HRD). Even the judiciary, albeit not as frequently due to its visible penchant for liberalism, has been guilty of this. It has expressed a view which has been echoed by a myriad of Censor Boards and governments- films are for the masses, and the masses aren’t yet evolved enough to be exposed to violence, obscenity and now, even the truth.
In half-hearted attempts to defend this repressive action, we have perhaps been shortsighted, for this is not about us just as viewers, but our autonomy as free thinking citizens of a democratic nation being eroded by actions which the Censor Boards openly misuse, courts sometimes turn a blind eye to and we have surreptitiously acquiesced to.
True artists hold a mirror to society. That, at times, becomes an uncomfortable truth for those in power. The CBFC’s actions are akin to a paranoia stricken organization trying to suppress the truth, blacken that mirror. Fortunately, artists in our country have been resilient to this, as has been seen in this case by Lipstick Under My Burkha’s Alankrita Srivastava, Udta Punjab’s filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, or a prominent example before that of Hansal Mehta standing by his film Aligarh. However, this suppression is susceptible to backfiring, for the more the artists are suppressed, the more they’d feel the need to express freely. The more their work would speak the language of defiance.
The Censor Board faced flak in 2015 for its ludicrous cuts suggested in the Daniel Craig starrer Spectre, but with the abovementioned examples, a whole new level of ignorance was displayed. It is a different matter if the Board wants to remove a violent scene, or a dialogue which it may feel could cause communal unrest, but it is an entirely different matter if they want to censor reality itself.
Lipstick Under My Burkha is a groundbreaking film, for it dared to challenge norms and preconceptions, something not seen so often in Indian cinema. With Udta Punjab, if reports and data available are anything to go by, drug addiction is a genuine problem in the state, one which has taken multiple lives and destroyed multiple families. Staying aloof from reality and maintaining an ostrich like approach where one believes nothing is wrong, is certainly not going to help in solving any problem. Having people be made aware about the predicament that’s been faced and letting them develop an informed and aware opinion on the topic, might just.
By Kushagra Singh (Non-fiction)