In an interview to Saibal Chatterjee, Shyam Benegal, director and screenwriter, says he wholeheartedly welcomes the Bombay high court judgment on Udta Punjab and that he is personally against censorship.
What is your take on the entire film censorship question?
Officially, there is no censorship today. The Central Board of Film Certification’s job is to certify films, not censor them. Any attempt to censor a film only means harking back to the old days. We have to go by the demands of the times we live in. Today one can watch just about anything on television, the Internet and on other multimedia platforms. We can’t be blind to the reality of a changing world. Under the Cinematograph Act 1952, we once did have a board of film censorship. So films were censored. In 1983, the board was renamed CBFC. It tends to be paternalistic; it sees people as children whose viewing has to be monitored. Things have changed, but not enough. Vestiges of the past continue to linger.
When you submitted your own first few films in the mid-1970s — Ankur, Nishant, et al — did you face any censorship trouble?
Oh yes, most of my films had trouble. None of my films went through unscathed. Nishant had a problem. I had to put a disclaimer in the beginning and a disclaimer at the end. The reason was all political.
How different is the present case related to Udta Punjab?
It is very different. Some say the film defames the Punjab government; others assert it is one-sided in its depiction of the problem. The controversy was triggered by the CBFC chairman. The filmmakers had applied for an adult certificate, not a universal certificate, so there was no reason why all those cuts had to be ordered.
Most filmmakers want their films to be given a U certificate. But what if a difficult CBFC chief acts tough on the grounds that the film has elements unsuitable for universal viewing?
A filmmaker knows best the kind of film he or she has made and what kind of audience the film is meant for. So if a particular certificate is applied for, the question of the board refusing the certificate does not arise. But yes, in certain cases the courts might have to come in to interpret the Constitution. A film cannot be exhibited if it is unconstitutional. That is a given in any country.
But films do often face the threat of violence in our country, don’t they?
Yes. That is an area we have to think about. Take the example of (Deepa Mehta’s) Fire. The film had a proper certificate. But there was violence outside the halls in Mumbai and Delhi where it was screened. So the government was forced to ban it in order to avert a serious law and order situation. No government can allow public order to be disturbed. Censorship is a vexed issue in India because we are a fairly complex country. Our diversity comes in the way of certifying films. The audience here ranges from the completely unlettered to the highly educated. Nationalism means different things to different people in India. Different regions have different issues. Censorship is easier in European countries because they are largely homogenous and single-language nations.
A lot of censorship disputes arise these days over foul language used in films. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Contemporary Indian cinema increasingly uses the language of the street to reflect the reality of our lives. In many parts of India, expletives are used as a punctuation. That is the sort of language that you hear all the time around you. There was a time when if you went to London and interacted with the working class or members of the British Army, the use of the F-word was very common. Every sentence would be peppered with it. But nobody really paid any heed to the actual meaning of the word.
Why, then, are we so touchy about the use of expletives in films?
Cinema in India was, since its very birth, designed for the urban middle class, which was educated and accustomed to a certain kind of language. The films that were made in those days kept that in mind. So, Indian cinema took a step away from the real world and that is the way it developed in the early decades.
So you are suggesting that there is more reality in Indian films today.
Yes indeed, Indian cinema today, in terms of the language that it uses and the themes that it tackles, has moved far closer to reality. The language we hear on the screen reflects that. What the language in a film does is provide the background of the characters and set up the story. The language is an integral part of character development. It gives the audience clues about where a character has come from and what kind of person s/he is.
Aren’t you worried about films that are socially regressive and insensitive to people with disabilities and yet face no difficulty in sailing through the censorship process?
Unfortunately, it is true that Indian cinema is notorious for the way it often mocks disability of different kinds. People with disabilities are subjected to ridicule and their condition is used to raise laughs. Characters who have a stutter are especially targeted. They are used solely for comic purposes. That is definitely hard to digest.
So would you recommend that such films be subjected to censorship?
I am personally against censorship of any kind. Of course, I am appalled by filmmakers who are insensitive to disabilities. It is really about the sensibility of the people who make such films. Censorship isn’t the solution. These attitudes would need to be weeded out from society as a whole. It would not be enough to merely penalise films that perpetuate such attitudes.
How do you see the Bombay high court verdict on Udta Punjab?
I wholeheartedly welcome the Bombay high court judgment on Udta Punjab. The high court has given the right verdict. It has ruled that Udta Punjab is a film for an adult audience and deals with a social problem, and that it should be released without cuts.