Sweat for ‘Udta Punjab’ pays; Now it’s time for ‘Udta Babu’

Mumbai, June 17: Climbing all the hurdles, finally, ‘Udta Punjab’ got released today. The reviews, unanimously, say that the whole fuss was worth as it is breaking the long held beliefs on Punjab and is painting totally a different image.

The Bombay High Court went for the jugular. “None can dictate to the filmmaker on how he should make a film and use words; there is no need to censor films.”

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), otherwise lovingly referred to as the ‘Censor Board’, must be terminally bleeding, their mosaic floor turned incarnadine, even as the snippets of celluloid they so cavalierly litter it with sense a new lease of life.

“We do not find anything in the script (of Udta Punjab ) that affects the sovereignty and integrity of the nation,” ruled S.C. Dharmadhikari and Shalini Phansalkar Joshi, Justices on the Division Bench of Bombay High Court, sternly censuring the unseemly and arbitrary actions of the CBFC. Indeed, the wilful and voluble statements of Pahlaj Nihalani, the CBFC’s chairman, hand-picked by the Bharatiya Janata Party government, have been bordering on buffoonery when they are not actually oozing some sort of threat and menace.

Udta Punjab was not treated as a film by the CBFC as much as an attempt to cast a slur on the ‘fair name’ of Punjab (ruled by BJP’s alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal). Hardly a day after the rap on the knuckles from the court, the CBFC made headlines again by ordering 100 cuts in the Gujarati film Salagto Sawal: Anamat (Reservation: A Burning Question), a documentary on the Patidar agitation for reservations in Gujarat.

It is clear that for the CBFC and its chief, any State under the BJP or its allies cannot be portrayed negatively in films. These are impeccable zones where there can be no alcoholism, drug addiction, starvation deaths, farmer suicides, assault on women, breakdown of administrative machinery, corruption or communal riots. Any suggestion of that can only be a rumour and an attempt to bring the Centre into disrepute and disrupt the sovereignty of the nation.

The new wisdom that has been filtering through the past several months has been that if you critique the government, you are anti-national; if you critique the Army, you are unpatriotic; if you question judicial verdicts (as in the case of the hanging of Afzal Guru), you are seditious. If you root for West Indian cricketers you are an enemy of ‘our’ people.

But here is a piquant situation. Here is the CBFC, a lapdog of the Modi regime, which has been hauled over the coals by a judiciary which refuses to be a lapdog. Does this make the Bombay High Court anti-national or unpatriotic or seditious?

We are likely to witness such phenomena again and again over the coming years, as democratic institutions of the state array themselves against puppet institutions of the government. The results are likely to be spectacular.

This should draw our attention to the current epidemic of an increasingly large number of institutions under various ministries, particularly those of Culture and of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), which have been made into pocket boroughs of the Modi regime. The obvious tactic is to install a person at the top who has no other distinguishing feature except possible affiliations with the secretive and insidious RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) or a chronic and demonstrable devotion to Mr. Modi. This is strategically followed by stuffing the governing council or executive committee or advisory board with ‘yes’ men or women.

Over the last two years, we have seen the three Akademis, the National Museum, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library all go this way. And each one of them has turned into becoming a non-performing ‘asset’ of the government.

The case of the FTII, of course, does not bear repeating. The appointment of the TV actor Gajendra Chauhan as chairman there triggered a historic protest from students, staff and alumni, which was to be the first in the chain of student eruptions in campuses across the country. From being a centre for serious discourse and practice of cinema, the FTII is now poised to being run down to a mediocre C-grade affiliate of the Ministry of I&B. Its originary vision under the inspirational stewardship of Ritwik Ghatak, of a cinema of dissent being the soul of the citizens of a struggling nation, is destined to become a fast-fading nostalgic memory.

So too, the ICHR and the ham-handed attempts of its puppet president have come in for considerable critique. The National Museum, which was just about returning to normalcy after over a decade-long history of anguish, was swiftly returned to redundancy when its dynamic director was summarily dispatched to the Sports Authority of India. Ram Bahadur Rai, the new chairman of the IGNCA, strayed way beyond his brief last week when he claimed apropos of nothing that Jawaharlal Nehru was dead against having B.R. Ambedkar in the Constitution-drafting committee. It is clear what role this gentleman and his hand-picked cohorts would be up to in the IGNCA, neutralising the years of research and documentation of diverse aspects of Indian arts and quite possibly substituting it with myth and fable all over again.

However, there has not been a sufficient survey of the goings-on in the Sangeet Natak, Lalit Kala and Sahitya Akademis and the conversion of these spaces into anti-democratic fiefdoms that, in fact, perform the function of eroding democracy.

One would like to highlight the case of the Sahitya Akademi. Late last year a large number of writers, subsequent to the daylight killing of Akademi-member Malleshappa Kalburgi, returned their awards, in what came to be known as “award wapsi”. What the writers were really calling into question was the nature of an institution like the Sahitya Akademi itself. Why is the institution unable to reflect the angst or spirit of defiance of its constituents?

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first president of the Sahitya Akademi, had famously said: “I would not like the prime minister of the country to come between the institution and the president of this institution.” The notion was implicit that here was a space for dissent and that the institution did not need to hold the hands of the state.

However, the Modi Sarkar issued an unprecedented circular — fashioned as a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ — to all these institutions, converting them into ‘subordinate offices of the ministry’. Saddled now with soft puppets at their helm, it is likely we might see some more confrontations like that between the CBFC and the judiciary.

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