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Indian Court Okays Screening of Film on Drug Abuse

Bollywood film "Udta Punjab," or "Flying Punjab" actors Shahid Kapoor, left, and Alia Bhatt listen to a question during a press conference, in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, June 8, 2016.
Bollywood film "Udta Punjab," or "Flying Punjab" actors Shahid Kapoor, left, and Alia Bhatt listen to a question during a press conference, in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, June 8, 2016.

India’s film industry has hailed a court order allowing the screening of a movie portraying drug addiction with only a single cut as a huge victory for freedom of artistic expression.

The Censor Board wanted nearly 90 cuts to the thriller “Udta Punjab” or “Flying Punjab”, because it felt the film, based on drug trafficking, cast a poor light on the northern Punjab state by showing many of its young people hooked on drugs. The decision led to outrage in Bollywood, which rallied behind the filmmakers, who mounted a legal challenge to the order.

High Court rules against censorship of this movie

While overruling the censors, the Mumbai High Court made tough observations about censorship. Saying that the Censor Board cannot act as a “grandmother”, judges said it was important to protect the industry’s creativity. They said that the audience was the biggest censor.

Bollywood called the judgment a “much-needed breather” for filmmakers, who have been exploring new ground in recent years and making some bold cinema which has won high praise from critics and audiences. “Udta Punjab” involved some of Bollywood’s top talent.

Producer hopes this ruling will ease restrictions in future

The film’s jubilant producer, Anurag Kashyap, who had defended the movie as honest, says he hoped that “the judgement that came out will become a precedent for the future of cinema, which I think is good.” He has said that sponsorship of films by studios has become a problem due to fears about censorship.

Indian censors are empowered to protect audiences from content that shows profanity, excessive violence or sexuality, but filmmakers and audiences complain they simply have not kept pace with the times.

Censor Board officials on the other hand say they are simply following the rules set out in what many say is an outdated act going back to 1952.

Noted director, Madhur Bhandarkar, called the court’s ruling a great relief for the industry. “You cannot show this, you cannot put that, you blur the shot. And for the entire film fraternity across India, it is the fundamental right for the filmmaker to make the kind of cinema he believes in,” he said.

Except for cutting a scene in which the lead character, a rock star, urinates into a crowd, the court has given the go-ahead to all other shots and dialogues that were to have been chopped – for example a scene where a character injects himself with drugs, the use of swear words and even words such as election, legislator and member of parliament.

The controversy over “Udta Punjab” became embroiled in politics amid allegations that the Censor Board chief, who is close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, wanted to prevent any adverse impact on the Punjab state government, headed by a BJP ally. Punjab holds elections next year and opposition parties have accused the regional party that rules it of cooperating with a flourishing illegal drug trade in the state. The BJP says it had nothing to do with the Censor Board’s decision.

How the movie fares with audiences remains to be seen, but the widely-covered controversy has turned the spotlight on the drug menace in Punjab, an affluent state that is grappling with high unemployment among young people. While issues such as corruption and violence against women have generated much debate in recent years, the problem of drug addiction has received scant attention. The border state, which adjoins Pakistan, lies on the transit route of drugs from Afghanistan.