Flying Punjab, Flying Judiciary

As the dust slowly settles down on one of the most hyped episode in our march to assure ourselves Freedom of Expression, the contours of the picture that emerge is not what we had exactly hoped for, nor does it mark any new beginning as most experts have taken pains to point out. It has become a cliché of sorts whenever there is a popular judicial decision, “oh it is a new beginning in the history of India film industry.” Every time I got this opinion from some expert either in the printed media or the electronic media, it reminded of how grossly myopic we have become. Somewhat like the dealers in the forex trading rooms of brokerage firms, where the offer is valid only until the call is disconnected.

Anurag is not the first film maker whose creative rights were questioned, nor is Pahalaaj the first man who has tried to stifle the creativity in India. There have been many film makers in the past who had rubbed the authorities on the wrong side with their bold takes on bold subjects, particularly subjects with political shades. The best example that comes up is Aandhi, when the subject was the most powerful woman of the day.

Even if assuming that Anuraag had not intended to make a film with political shades, which he claims although I see no reason why he is so defensive about it, the film falls far short of Aandhi, which in the then prevailing context had pushed the envelope very far. Comparatively Udta Punjaab is kindergarten stuff, atleast from what is available in the public domain for now.

On the other side, as far as the Board is concerned, there are too many films even now struggling to reach the theatres as the Board either sits on the films or makes impossible demands on the film makers. Bollywood and the Liberal Brigade, if at all is so concerned, should look at the big picture instead of making issue of one film, just because big names are associated with the film. It does not help the cause of Free Speech. The cause is helped if we have cut down the average and the maximum time taken to certify films in India. A metrics based approach is essential instead of making a hero of one case.

So let us look at this one film and what have we achieved, more importantly what have we lost in getting this one film to the theatre.

There is a process of film certification, by which an authority, and every country has some form of authority, reviews the film before it hits the society. This review is essential in any society to have some semblance of order. This authority is expected to identify the audience most suitable for the product. CBFC is also expected to do the same in the Indian context.  CBFC is an idea. Just a case in point, we cannot have porn films released in theatres accessible to school kids, and to ensure that we need to have some authority that would do this dirty job for the society.

Now we will leave out the technology and the internet through which films can be distributed without the approval of any such authority. If that was possible and viable, Anurag would not have bothered about approaching CBFC.

CBFC has a defined impersonal multi stage process so that a film maker gets a fair hearing, and is not unduly persecuted. The process was in place before the villain of the piece came into the picture and shall continue to remain so long after he is gone. It was really absurd to see the media blaming it on one individual going to the extent of demanding his resignation, as if he reports to the media who has a right to decide on everything.

So Anuraag made this beautiful film, every piece of creativity is inherently beautiful, Flying Punjab, and approached the CBFC for permission to take the film to the audience in India. Now the CBFC did not deny him the permission nor did they sit on the film causing bureaucratic delays the way they do for small time film makers. They told him that the film would be appropriate for “A” audience with changes in 89 places.

Now Anuraag as a creative cat has a right to be unhappy with these suggestions. The process provides for resolving this unhappiness with one review layer at the Head office of the Board, if he is still unhappy than another body F-CAT headed by a retired SC judge looks into the grievance.

If he is still unhappy, the next stage is the I&B Ministry to whom the CBFC is accountable to. Let us remember the  I&B Ministry in a democratic setup represents us, the people of India. It is very much possible that the film maker may not be happy even with the I&B Minister’s decision. So then still that is not the end of the road, for he can approach the judiciary. Fairly robust grievance redressal mechanism!

Given the background of Pahalaaj, it is very much possible that he would have created more problems for Anuraag, but that is in the realm of possibility. Pahalaaj has done some very sublime work in his career as film maker. Some of his films have been commercially very successful but if we see them today, it appears crass and vulgar. Recently he had also made a very indulgent documentary on NaMo.

He is not just headstrong but also enjoys the trust of New Delhi, just like Gajendra does. His predecessor Ms Leela Samson had resigned from the post following the heat generated after F-CAT had cleared the film, Messenger of God, that featured Dera Sachha Suda chief. So this is not exactly a throne that the CBFC chairman occupies. She had accused the Government of undue interference.

Politically the Government took the stance that CBFC is an independent entity managed by someone from the industry, in a way handsoff. Some of the comments made by Pahalaaj had political overtones, and it appeared that the Government was happy with his actions.

So it was very likely as Anuraag claimed in his interview, that he would have not got justice within CBFC or the F-CAT, and even in the I&B Ministry. He had his own reasons. Anuraag did what he had to do, driven by creative and commercial reasons.

The day he got to know about the 89 cuts decision from CBFC he approached the media, which led by the Liberal Brigade, made it the biggest talking point on a day when NaMo was to address the Congress (in US), overshadowing India’s moment of glory, in a clear case of misplaced priorities.

Our man did not follow the laid down process for addressing grievances as he was in a hurry to get the film released. The media conveniently forgot this aspect. The commercials play a far bigger role in the big league film business. Creativity, and freedom of free speech, is a convenient cover used for getting the Liberal Brigade to start shouting on top of the voice, drowning out basic questions.

The most basic question to which I have still not got an answer is why did the Court not send him back to the CBFC to work out all options and then approach the bench within a defined timeframe. The decision in itself was absolutely right in reprimanding the CBFC for behaving like a Grandma, but what was the rush to venture into executive turf. It is the I&B Ministry which should have been directed to sort out the problem.

If we look at the pile of cases pending with the Courts, they have enough work on their hands, there are hundreds of cases pending which have implications at individual and national level. Yet when Anuraag approached the Court, not just his case was heard with unmatched alacrity, but also a judgement was passed in the shortest time. If we look at the number of working hours between the time Anuraag approached the Court and the time he walked out with the decision, then we get the impression that we have a very efficient judicial system.

It is exactly this kind of hyperactive overenthusiastic and misplaced fight for liberalism that hurts the cause of liberalism for it rightfully earns the criticism of “tyranny of the unelected.”

But not all is gloomy.

The executive still holds its turf. For on the same day, another incident happened in the same city far away from media glare, again on the aspect of Free Speech.

A few days back another creative cat had made a short skit involving two Bharat Ratna icons which had also created a huge storm in the national consciousness as the Liberal Brigade went all over criticizing the political parties for stifling creativity. Now as such, in my opinion, that skit was not just crass but absolute rubbish and probably only a deranged mind may have found it humorous. I did not like that two of my favorite stars were made fun of in such a cheap manner. Sachin has been at the receiving end of many jokes, but never anything so cheap.

I would still support his right to make the skit, for there was nothing anti-national or anti-social in the skit. Some of the political parties, including those running the Government were highly critical of the man, threatening violence and filing police complaints, purportedly on behalf of the icons who were riled in the video.

So on the same day when the judiciary ventured into executive territory for Anuraag, somewhere in the distance the Police Department decided that the said case did not deserve any FIR or any further investigation thereby closing the chapter. I was very happy to see the Police do their part and not making things anymore ridiculous by dragging the matter to the Courts.

It was not the first time the executive asserted itself by acting on its own. But in recent times, it was refreshing to see such firm executive action which did not play to the gallery. It saw the video and decided that there was no case against Tanmay. Matter closed. Period.

The two arms need to work in its own respective areas without stepping into each other’s territory, without exploring all the options available in the system. Great nations are not built by individuals however capable they may be, nor are they destroyed by individuals howsoever toxic they might be like Pahlaaj. Oh yes he is highly toxic for he tries to justify his actions in a way that makes us believe that he is God, and only he has the divine right to decide what movies we should see. He himself does not believe that CBFC is an idea which has to be executed through a multi-layered impersonal process.

Great nations are built by processes that the great leaders have institutionalized so as to continue to take the nation forward long after the leaders have gone. These processes need to be respected and nurtured. Neither does Pahlaaj respect it nor does Anuraag respects. They are two sides of the same coin.

Occasionally if the process throws a bad result, one has to open the box if everything is okay with the process. It is the process needs that needs to be revisited and not the bad result. If some nuts need to be tuned, then the executive needs to be told to fix the process instead of fixing one bad outcome of the process. Now the CBFC has all the right to take the matter to SC to appeal against possible overstepping on the part of the HC.

The Judiciary cannot and should not be the first port of call for the aggrieved film makers. For now the country would get to see Flying Punjab, but what about the hundreds of films that are still stuck.  Film makers had a problem before Pahalaaj came onto the scene and they shall continue to have a problem long after Pahalaaj becomes past tense. Problem is not the individual. Problem is the idea of certification with which creative cats will always have conflict. But we need the idea, else the floodgates will be opened.

Solution is not removing individuals. Solution is to address concerns of creative cats on a fair redressal process within CBFC and on the general concern about the ability of Executive to respond to these concerns.

It is a two way process, the judiciary has to have faith in the executive to deliver on its own, and the executive has to assure the judiciary that it can. Neither should be keen to venture into each other’s turf, just because some kid complains and the media drives up a frenzy.

by sanjayshankar

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