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What do KA Abbas and Udta Punjab's Abhishek Chaubey have in common? - Censorship Woes


The Udta Punjab director faces the same question that the firebrand writer-filmmaker did: whether to appease political voices or fight for freedom of expression.

Shriram Iyengar

Films in India are governed by the Cinematograph Act, 1952. Since its inception, the act and its governing body have mandated how accessible a film can be to Indian audiences. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) requires every film to obtain a certificate before public screening (section 4(I) of the Cinematograph Act), while section 5B says a film may not be certified if it violates certain provisions of the act.

But over the years, the weapon of censorship has been wielded inconsistently, making filmmakers cynical. Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab (2016) is the latest to suffer, with the CBFC, popularly known as the censor board, asking the filmmaker to amend the plot or the title to ensure certification. The board's objection is that the film exaggerates and portrays the state or region in poor light.

The objection by certain interested parties, and the censor board's reaction to it, is neither new nor novel. In 1970, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas faced a similar struggle. A firebrand journalist, film critic, writer, and filmmaker, Abbas was trying to get his documentary, A Tale Of Four Cities or Chaar Shehron Ki Kahaani, released. It was a film about poverty, human struggle, and apathy in the four major cities of Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras.

The film contained liberal shots of Bombay's red-light district and its business. Naturally, it came in for heavy censorship. The board wanted the filmmaker to snip portions depicting the transactions of prostitutes to ensure that no damage was done to the "reputation" of the city. Abbas refused, and took the board to court, going all the way to the Supreme Court. This was the first instance of the country's highest judicial body being brought into a discussion on film criticism and censorship. KA Abbas vs Union of India, 1970, is considered a landmark case since it brought a detailed discussion on the role of censorship in films into the Supreme Court, outside the ambit of newspapers or the government.

In one of the more eloquent sections of the judgment, Chief Justice M Hidayatullah provided a valid interpretation of the role and purpose of censorship in films. He remarked that since Indian films lacked an organised film body, the duty of censorship falls on the government. Such censorship is a necessary task conducted in the interests of public morality and decency. However, the bench also noted that cinema was a medium that was radically different from other forms of art. To quote:

"It has been almost universally recognized that the treatment of motion pictures must be different from that of other forms of art and expression. This arises from the instant appeal of the motion picture, its versatility, realism (often surrealism), and its coordination of the visual and aural senses. The art of the cameraman, with trick photography, VistaVision and three-dimensional representation thrown in, has made the cinema picture more true to life than even the theatre or indeed any other form of representative art. The motion picture is able to stir up emotions more deeply than any other product of art. Its effect, particularly on children and adolescents, is very great since their immaturity makes them more willingly suspend their disbelief than mature men and women. They also remember the action in the picture and try to emulate or imitate what they have seen."

The paragraph has since become one of the most repeated on censorship, featuring in cases on freedom of expression in films ever since. It also touches upon one of the more important aspects of the reasons for film censorship. It classifies film censorship as a need not because films are likely to misrepresent real life, but because they can represent life in its visceral reality. For instance, the court remarks that it cannot ask a filmmaker to remove scenes of violence in a story of war, but neither can it allow such a film to be shown to a child.

The most important paragraph of the judgment though is the part where it seeks to define the standards of censorship for films. "Our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read. The standards that we set for our censors must make a substantial allowance in favour of freedom... thus leaving a vast area for creative art to interpret life and society with some of its foibles along with what is good."

The judges did not, however, venture to set out rules on how the process of censorship ought to function. The only valid statement they made was: "Therefore it is not the elements of rape, leprosy, sexual immorality which should attract the censor's scissors but how the theme is handled by the producer. It must, however, be remembered that the cinematograph is a powerful medium and its appeal is different."

Eventually, Abbas's documentary film was released with an Adults Only certification. The writer-director-producer wrote the screenplay for some iconic films like Mera Naam Joker (1970), Bobby (1973), and Saat Hindustani (1969). The last film introduced an actor who became Hindi cinema's biggest superstar, Amitabh Bachchan. 

The Supreme Court's decision in the Khwaja Ahmad Abbas case paved the way for censorship standards in Indian cinema. It served as a reminder that censorship, while necessary, cannot reduce literary and cinematic works to the least common denominator for audiences. Yet, the relevance and importance of the court in Abbas's case hasn't changed. The Indian film industry could use a few pages of the judgment to counter today's censor board.